Inside Libya’s detention centres
Every day, thousands of people travel from Africa and the Middle East, across the Sahara to the Mediterranean Sea in Libya. They flee war, violence and poverty. Thousands die along the way or endure exploitation, abuse, violence and detention in the hope of reaching Europe and a better life.
Italian journalist Francesca Mannocchi and photographer Alessio Romenzi joined UNICEF to document the plight of migrant children in Libya’s detention centres. Here is their account.
“Why am I here? When can I get out?”
The same questions, heard over and over.
Time doesn’t exist in the detention centres. Time is the same moment, made of cages, silence, darkness and loneliness. Time is waiting for a response that never comes.
2016 was the worst year ever recorded for the Mediterranean Sea crossing: over 4,500 people drowned trying to cross from Libya to Italy. An average of 13 deaths every day.
Many more deaths likely go unrecorded, victims of shipwrecks that remain unknown.
The departures never stop. Even in winter.
Thousands of migrants have already left. Thousands more arrive in Libya each day. Many try to hide, waiting for an opportunity to take a boat, but thousands are trapped in limbo in detention centres.
Libya’s economy is in deep crisis and cash is in short supply. Human trafficking is an increasingly lucrative, and fought over, business.
Instability plagues the country as militias fight with each other or with government forces. Certain parts of Libya are controlled by conflicting militias. They make their own rules, control border crossings and detain migrants for exploitation, taking all the money they have.
There are 24 detention centres run by the government that house migrants from all over the continent and beyond.
The militias have set up their own detention centres. Trying to figure out the number of them is impossible.
Against this backdrop, we wanted to go into the detention centres. We wanted to see them. We wanted to talk with the children who are forced to live there.
“We cannot cope”
Tripoli looks like a normal city through a car window.
The amusement rides along the seafront, families strolling in the square and the chaotic traffic of a city on the move.
But under the surface, the city is highly militarized and full of anger. Clashes between rival militias are a daily occurrence.
In front of the banks, from the crack of dawn, hundreds of people wait for their weekly chance to pick up their money.
Because in Libya, having cash is now a miracle.
At the official exchange rate, 1 US dollar is worth 1.4 dinars. On the black market, it’s worth between 5–7 dinars.
Corruption is now an endemic factor in the economic life of the city. Those who hold the cash hold the power.
The Interior Ministry’s official who is travelling with us to a detention centre is very clear: “In Tripoli there are 13 illegal detention centres, managed by the armed militia. We cannot even get close to their areas, because we risk our lives.”
“[The militias] are holding a pile of cash, because they blackmail migrants and ask their families for ransom money”
“They are holding a pile of cash, because they blackmail migrants and ask their families for ransom money,” he says. “We have no money to even buy food, so we must close the centres, because we cannot cope.”
“I want to be a doctor”
At detention centre 1, 60 women and 20 children are locked in a room, living in cramped quarters with dozens of mattresses, one next to another.
Some women try to create a semblance of normal daily life by combing the girls’ hair while others take care of the babies.
Will, who is 8 years old, is alone. His eyes are deeply sad.
Will is alone because his parents died, drowned at sea.
During the journey he did not have a life jacket and the boat capsized.
“We wanted to go to Italy, we were on a boat,” he says. “After a while the boat began to take in water and soon sank.”
“There was a boy and I held onto him for so many hours while he swam to shore. He saved my life. But my father and mother are dead.”
Since then some women in the centre take care of him.
He walks barefoot, disoriented. He looks for toys, among the very few that are there.
Outside the detention centre there is a large open area.
A Libyan guard claims to take kids out every day, but a child says that they come out once every four days.
“every time I said to my mother that I wanted to become a doctor she answered me: when we arrive in Italy, you will study and become a doctor”
At the end of the room, Kamis is cuddling one of her younger brothers, while her mother feeds the other one.
Kamis is 9 years old and a big smile appears on her face when we ask her what her dream is.
“I want to be a doctor,” she says. “Before leaving Nigeria, every time I said to my mother that I wanted to become a doctor she answered me: when we arrive in Italy, you will study and become a doctor.”
But Kamis’ family never arrived in Italy. They were arrested at sea when the boat they were in broke down.
Kamis’ mother becomes emotional. It is hard to tell whether it is the relief of being alive or the guilt for having taken her three children on a rubber boat to cross the sea.
“I did not know it was so risky,” she says in tears. “Nobody told me the truth about how dangerous the journey could be.”
“I realized it once we were on the boat. All around us people were crying and shouting, and I only thought: ‘If it’s my turn to die, it does not matter, but my children have to survive’.”
“When will I get out?”
Along the coastal road from Tripoli to detention centre 2 there are several checkpoints. The most critical one is in Garabulli, a small seaside town and strategic area from which thousands of migrants embark.
“In Garabulli the Coast Guard does not have enough resources,” says our driver Hassan. “But above all, they are frightened by the threats made by the militias that control human trafficking. When the Coast Guard sees a boat leaving, they simply close their eyes, they do not say anything and pretend not to see.”
“But even if the Coast Guard wanted to fight smuggling, they do not have enough rescue vehicles. When they can, they recover the rafts drifting, sometimes with private boats,” he says.
Too often, however, they recover corpses.
“Dozens of armed militias are involved in human trafficking, they keep migrants in miserable conditions. They have a double standard,” says Hassan.
“On the one hand, they ask the interior ministry for money to run the centres, for food, water, clothes; while on the other hand, they blackmail migrants, abuse them, ask for ransom money from their families, use them as slaves to work and if that is not enough, they send the migrants to die in the sea.”
When we arrive at detention centre 2, we see two prison guards sitting outside the building.
The guards tell us they have not received their salary for 14 months. One of them accompanies us inside, holding a bunch of keys. The sound of the keys is the only sound that breaks the silence.
The men’s area is locked with a padlock. About 40 boys are crowded up along the iron bars that separate the male area from the female one.
They plead with us: “Can you help me? Please help me. I need to get out. We want our freedom.”
On the ground, the youngest of them grabs the gate, staring at the floor. His name is Issaa. He is 14 years old and comes from Niger. He is alone. We ask the guard to open the gate.
Issaa has frightened eyes. He has many memories but he cannot find the words to tell them. He just looks at us as if we could explain to him why he’s there.
Issaa wanted to cross the sea, find a job and work hard to earn money.
His mother died, his father is poor and he is the oldest of five brothers who have nothing to eat.
“I left Niger two and a half years ago,” he says, sitting on a dirty mattress on the floor. “When I arrived in Libya I had to seek work and I went to [name removed], I worked on a farm.”
“I took care of the animals and the trees for 250 dinars a month [about US$180]. But six months ago the owner stopped paying me. I tried to ask him for my money, but he told me ‘If you don’t like, you can leave.’ So I left. But when I arrived in [name removed] to find another job four months ago, the police arrested me.”
Since that moment, Issaa has been held in the detention centre.
As the padlock is placed back on the door, Issaa continues looking at us from behind the bars. As we turn to leave, the final sound we hear is his shrill voice asking us,
“When will I get out?”
“I want to go to school, I love school”
Detention centre 3 is a concrete building in the middle of nowhere. On the right side are the women and on the left the men. Each area has a gate locked by a padlock.
There is no electricity and no clean water.
According to the directors and guards at the detention centres, the government does not provide funding and does not pay food suppliers. Often migrants do not have anything to eat.
The female cells are overcrowded. They sleep on blankets piled on the ground, in a space of a few square meters.
At the entrance, the smell emanating from the bathroom makes the air unbreathable.
In the men’s section water pipes are broken and faeces invade half the floor.
The walls are covered with writing: “we are treated like animals”, “bad racism”, “the lives of blacks in Libya is hell”.
Pati is 16 years old and fled from Nigeria.
“I had to work for my brothers,” says Pati. “I had to leave school for their education, to pay their fees. If I did not work my family had no money to feed them.”
Like thousands of other people fleeing from war and poverty, Pati crossed the Sahara desert. It took her 14 days.
When she begins to tell the details of her journey, her eyes seem lost in the memories.
“The journey was hard. Very hard. Because we had to walk, we had no cars. We walked for two weeks to reach Libya, sometimes walking and going without water for two days.”
“We do not want to be here,” she repeats over and over again.
Many women sit around her. They support Pati, telling her not to be afraid. Her story is their story.
Pati was captured at sea. The engine of the rubber boat she was in broke down and all the people on board — around 120 men, women and children — were brought back to land and arrested.
“When I was in the sea I was so scared,” she says. “I was just comforted by my dreams of going to Europe and making a good life for myself and my siblings.”
Today, when she imagines a better life, her first thought is education.
“A part of me was happy being in the sea. I thought: when I get to Europe I will go back to school and I can start a good life. I want to go to school, I love school,” she says.
“Can you help me?”
Located in an area where rival militias are fighting, accessing detention centre 4 is very risky.
When we arrive, the first thing we see is the barbed wire fence that surrounds it.
“We need to protect them,” says one of the guards.
But in Libyan detention centres the line between what is protecting migrants and what is threatening them is becoming increasingly blurred.
On the day of our visit there are about 1,400 people in the detention centre. 250 of them are unaccompanied minors.
The director of the centre meets us at the gate. In his office, he tells us the story of the centre, from the Gaddafi-era to today.
“Children are often alone. They cross 2,000 km of desert without their families, and they are rescued in the sea without documents,” he says. “This makes it difficult for us to know their real nationality and age.”
“Before 2014 we often brought them back to the border… to take them back to their countries, but after the last civil war, it is much more difficult. Those areas are dangerous even for us.”
He describes how the centre is often threatened by groups of smugglers. “Many traffickers arrive in the centre overnight, forcing the soldiers to give them groups of migrants to make them work for free. They are very dangerous people, armed and ruthless. They make no distinction between adults and children.”
“For us it is very difficult to ensure the safety of this place. And even the prison guards are in big trouble, the official government does not give us the money to pay salaries and to pay the suppliers of food. So often we do not have enough food nor drinking water.”
“This winter was particularly cold and only in recent weeks 15 migrants froze to death.”
Migrants live in metal sheet buildings — freezing in winter and sweltering in summer. Each building contains dozens of people, locked by a padlock. The light passes through small windows and through the iron grates of the door.
The sight is heart-breaking.
As we walk around the centre, dozens of men crowd at the doors. From every door we hear the same words:
“We are dying, let us get out of here, we live like animals, they beat us every day.”
Children, teenagers, all of them reach out a hand, begging for help.
They are desperate and we are powerless to give them answers.
The average time migrants spend in the detention centre is about 8–10 months, says the director.
However, when asked about who decides when these people can be released and what awaits them outside he gives no convincing details, speaking vaguely of voluntary repatriation.
The feeling is that the detention of these men, teenagers and children is completely arbitrary.
Jon approaches me, being careful not to be seen by the guards. “Can you help me?” It is the first thing he says to me, without knowing who I am.
He is 15 years old, but his eyes are no longer the eyes of a child. They are eyes that have seen too much and cannot forget.
We sit down beside the mattress on which he has been sleeping for seven months.
He would like to tell his family that he is still alive, but he cannot. Once arrested the Libyan soldiers confiscate the migrants’ mobile phones. Their only form of communication is cut off.
After Jon’s parents died two years ago, he lived for a while with his grandmother, then he decided to try to go to Libya and cross the sea.
He paid US$1,000 to cross Niger from Agadez to Qatrun, then Sabha. Once he arrived in [name removed], Libyan soldiers arrested him.
“My journey from Nigeria to Libya was horrible and dangerous,” he says. “I prayed that I would not die.”
“In the desert we had no water or food, nothing. The man who was sitting next to me during the journey died. The desert was so hot. When one dies in the desert, they throw away the body and that’s it.”
Jon bravely describes to us how he lives in the detention centre.
“Here they treat us like chickens. They beat us, they harass us. So many people are dying here, dying from disease, freezing to death.”
“When the Libyan soldiers enter our rooms, they treat us like slaves, they tell us that we are their slaves. But we are human beings, like them,” he says.
“I do it for my father”
Detention centre 5 used to be a wedding venue. Today it houses 160 migrants who are locked up for 24 hours a day.
Adamou wished for a better future in Europe, but once in Libya he became a hostage.
Born in 1991 in Niger, his face is marked by illness and hollowed out by hunger. He breathes hard and walks with difficulty.
Since he was arrested by the Libyan police six months ago, his life has been spent in a room with the stench of people who cannot wash. 160 people to 6 bathrooms.
Adamou has an expulsion order, which he was able to obtain from the Embassy of Niger. The document entered him into a so-called plan of voluntary repatriation that technically allows him to leave the country. But he has no money for a plane ticket and he is gravely ill.
He has tuberculosis. That is why he cannot eat, breathe properly or stand.
But no doctors come to the detention centre.
Public hospitals rejected him. Private clinics wanted to be paid at least 200 dinars (about US$140) per day plus medicines.
The guard at the detention centre tried to call several doctors, but nobody came.
The day we visit the detention centre was the day we witness one of the few acts of generosity shown towards a migrant. The guard decides to pay for the ambulance, medicine and hospital stay for Adamou.
“I do it for my father,” says the guard. “I do it for his memory. He would have been proud of me. My father would never have liked to see what his Libya has become today.”
[Names have been changed to protect identities.]
Francesca Mannocchi is an Italian journalist. She contributes to various Italian and international magazines and TV, including: L’Espresso, Al Jazeera, MiddleEastEye, RAI-3 and Skytg24, among others. Her work focuses on migration and conflict zones. In recent years she reported from Tunisia, Egypt, the Balkans, Iraq, Libya, Turkey and Lebanon. Last year she directed, with the photographer Alessio Romenzi, “If I close my eyes”, a documentary on Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, screened last September at the Rome Film Festival. In 2016 she received the Premiolino, the most important journalistic award in Italy.
Alessio Romenzi is an Italian photographer. Raised in a small village in the Italian Apennines, he previously worked as refrigeration technician and blacksmith. He later decided to base himself in the Middle East, covering the so-called Arab Spring from the beginning, with a special focus on Egypt and Libya. Later his interests moved to Syria. His works have been awarded once with the UNICEF Picture of the Year and twice with the World Press Photo Award and the Picture of the Year International. Alessio’s images appear regularly in the major international magazines and are used by international humanitarian organizations. When asked about the motives underlying his work, he never has anything conclusive to say. He simply states that the camera is the best way he has to document what is going on out there.
Learn more about UNICEF’s work with children on the move.