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‘They call us slaves’ – a look inside Libya’s detention centres

“I want to go back home, I just want to get out of this place,” a girl, aged around 12, tells documentary film-makers.

A mother emotionally recounts her young daughter’s attempt to hang herself while one man describes how a fellow inmate was hit on the head so many times he couldn’t speak afterwards.

“They call us slaves… we’re in a terrible state of fear,” he said.

Another describes how one of the prisoners was a powerfully built man when he arrived at the centre, but because of torture and malnutrition had turned skinny, covered in bruises and traumatised.

“If I told you about what he suffered, you would lose your mind,” he said.

In footage shown during an hour-long documentary presented earlier this month, detainees spoke to film-makers about conditions inside the notorious detention centres.

The viewing was private, open only to the media, NGOs and individuals working on the forefront of Europe’s migration crisis. The film-makers asked to remain unnamed for fear they would not be allowed future access to detainees in retaliation.

If I told you about what he suffered, you would lose your mind

The ages of detainees vary from very young children aged five or under to those in their 60s or 70s, though most are young men below the age of 25.

Their testimonies included routine incidents of beatings, forced labour, sexual exploitation, torture and killings.

They reported a lack of access to medicines and sparse supplies of food and water, with one man describing small portions of food as “not enough for a cat”.

The provisions that are supplied can be seen in the documentary being slid under locked iron doors into unventilated rooms housing large numbers of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other captives camped out on mattresses on the floor.

Disease is widespread within the centres, with conditions such as tuberculosis rife in the unsanitary conditions.

How do people end up there?

While some detainees end up in the detention centres after being kidnapped or arrested by Libya’s immigration police, many others arrive following unsuccessful attempts to cross the Mediterranean by boat.

Such crossings – organised by smugglers – have made headlines in Malta in recent years, with allegations of boats in trouble being ignored by Maltese authorities or, in some cases, returned to Libya in cooperation with the Libyan coastguard.

One famous example occurred on Easter Sunday in 2020, when Maltese authorities were accused of coordinating the pushback of 52 migrants to Libya after being alerted to the boat by NGO Alarm Phone.

The migrants were subsequently sent to a detention centre.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the merchant vessel San Felix was allegedly ordered by Malta to leave a boat in trouble carrying around 250 migrants, according to NGO Sea-Watch International.

In a recording posted to Twitter, the captain of the merchant vessel can be heard telling the NGO over radio that Maltese authorities had told him that “they would handle this case… they are on top of it”.

The NGO later posted that the boat had been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard.

It is a crime under international law for states to return asylum seekers to a country where they are likely to face persecution.

Detainees also spoke to film-makers about the harrowing conditions aboard the small boats attempting to cross to Europe, including a lack of supplies, overcrowding, disease, mental instability and death.

One man who had attempted the journey said that those onboard had been provided with very little water and been given just a small piece of croissant each.

Another recounted how he and others had been forced to drink sea water for four days after the boat’s supply of freshwater ran out, with some becoming hysterical and delirious as a result.

A migrant told film-makers that an engine leak had caused gasoline to pool in the middle of the dinghy he was crossing on.

“It burned our skin… the salt water made it worse,” he said. 

Many in the documentary described how their boats were filmed and photographed by aircraft – suspected to be from the EU’s border agency Frontex – shortly before the arrival of the Libyan coastguard.

Libya’s coastguard has been widely criticised in recent years for its links to independent militia groups but continues to benefit from millions of euros in EU funding as part of the bloc’s efforts to curb illegal migration.

How do people leave detention centres?

Those running the detention centres demand money to release detainees, with sums ranging from the equivalent of hundreds to thousands of US dollars. 

Most detainees cannot afford such amounts, having already paid large sums to smugglers, often with the help of their families and even their entire communities.

“If we left our countries with no money, how can they expect us to pay?” asked one detainee.

Another described how even having access to such funds is no guarantee of freedom.

Those paying the entire fee upfront are often sold to smugglers or other detention centres for extortion purposes on the assumption their families can source more money, he explained.

Meanwhile, others are kept for use in forced labour, made to work off their debts for months or even years on end.

Attempts at escape are met with deadly force.

“We ran and they started firing at us… eight people were killed around me but, by the will of God, I survived,” says one man who was kidnapped again shortly after escaping from one centre.

Some who are unable to pay are reportedly executed.

An estimated 5,000 people are thought to be held in Libya’s network of detention centres, with many detainees being foreign citizens originating from countries including Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Bangladesh, among others.

Libya’s detention centres have been prominently criticised by organisations including the United Nations and Amnesty International.

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