The story of a group of Algerians who witnessed western Libya’s increasingly “institutionalised” detention centres — and slave market — from the inside.
When Djamel returned to Algeria after spending ten days in a Libyan detention centre, the look in his eyes was different. Something inside him had died.
He was one of a group of 56 young Algerians attempting to reach Italy’s southern shores who were arrested at sea by Libyan coastguards in May. That’s when their nightmare began.
They were taken to Al Nasr detention centre for aspiring refugees in the port town of Zawiya, about 50 kilometres west of Tripoli. This centre is one of two in the area.
The group, along with more than 450 others from Morocco and other countries, was caught as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea through a well-established and highly organised Libya-based human trafficking network — one that often works hand-in-hand with the official coastguard.
Djamel and Abdelghani, young Algerians from the same village in the Berber-speaking region of Kabylie, east of Algiers, were both on that trawler. They first left Algeria, along with 22 others last April headed to Libya’s western city of Zuwara.
The Algerians had a rendezvous with one of Libya’s flourishing new “businessmen”: a leading smuggler, who goes by the name of El Hadj Yosaf. Most of the refugee boats leaving Libya these days leave from Sabratha.
On May 19, right after midnight, they set out from Sabratha in a 20-metre long trawler purchased by seven smugglers to send “their” refugees to sea, several members of the group told TRT World. Less than three hours later, while reaching the limit of the 12- nautical mile territory under the sovereignty of the country's Government of National Union, the Libyan coastguards started shooting into the air in a clear warning for the trawler to stop.
“Euros, dollars, phones”
Those who we met in Algeria’s Berber-speaking region of Tizi-ouzou, after they returned back from Libya, give a horrific account of their conditions during detention.
“When the Libyan coastguards stopped us at sea, we were scared to death,” says Djamel, who was trying to cross for the first time.
According to those interviewed, after the coastguards stopped the vessel, the Libyan officers boarded the trawler and forced it to the port of Zawiya. Zawiya has become the region’s de facto hub for human and oil trafficking in the aftermath of the NATO-backed 2011 conflict. The North African country’s ongoing political paralysis and chaos have allowed armed criminal organisations to openly flourish.
What happened inside the two-deck vessel is impossible to verify. But by the accounts of several refugees, the coastguards stole everything the passengers had with them.
“They kept shouting at us: ‘Euros, dollars, phones,’ waving their hands for us to hand them over our belongings,” affirms Slimane, 32, who threw his phone overboard as this was happening.
“We had no choice,” he told TRT World.
“The Libyan coastguards stripped us of everything we had — money or phones — while we were still at sea inside the 20-metre trawler we took from the shores of Sabratha,” says Djamel, 34, a young Algerian father of two.
“While still at sea, the coastguards kept shooting in the air with their rifles, like they were playing with us; racing around our trawler with their modern-equipped vessels. It scared us as we were afraid our trawler would take water and sink,” he recalls. “After the coastguards took control of our trawler, two Moroccan nationals got shot and injured, on our way back, when one of coastguards fired bullets while at sea.”
Inside Al Nasr detention centre
“After arriving to the port of Zawiya, they took off our clothes and kept us there for a couple of hours, before transferring us to Al Nasr detention centre,” he says.
The detention centre of Al Nasr is one of the two existing in Zawiya. Officially, they are run by the Government of National Union’s immigration unit, but in reality, the government in Tripoli has little real control over them.
“I remember that two Moroccans died in the centre of Al Nasr because of all that inhumane treatment,” Slimane said, in an interview in his house in Tizi Ouzou, after he was safely back in Algeria.
Since April, the Libyan coastguards, especially the semi-autonomous ones on the shores to the west of Tripoli, are widely accused of looting boats and recklessly endangering refugees' lives at sea.
According to our witnesses, a small group of people acting as a militia, who call themselves the Al Nasr Brigade, controls Al Nasr detention centre. This would-be-militia group obeys the orders of a man named Oussama.
People working for the centre's director are ruthless, and the conditions there are inhumane.
"A Pakistani, a Bangladeshi, as well as six other workers have been working for the director for months when we arrived to that centre," Djamel explains. "They're from various nationalities and some of them work for him in order to pay of their sea crossing attempt."
"We only had one meal at the end of the day to share between the six of us," he says. "In the morning, we only had stale bread for food."
Beaten, starved, then sold
Our witnesses saw many acts of routine violence being practised by their jailers.
"Every night at around 2am, we would hear the cell doors being opened by our jailers, who would order refugees to get out and line up in the courtyard," the second Algerian, 30-year-old Abdelghani, who later says he escaped with the help of Libyan activists.
"We watched them getting beaten every night," he affirms. "Those who suffered a lot were the Moroccans, who were severely whipped before being returned to their cells," Abdelghani says.
In today's Libya, six years after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, it is undeniably the militias who make the rules: exploiting refugees, and selling and controlling human lives, as the conflict continues across the country.
Several international NGOs such as Oxfam International and the International Organization for Migration have highlighted these inhumane practices and strongly condemned them, so far in vain. Indeed, the Italian parliament have even approved a “code of conduct” for refugee rescue ships which has also been criticised by NGOs, saying it threatens refugees' lives and limits their lifesaving work.
Last April, Italy signed a deal, in Malta, with the Libyan Presidency Council in order to curb migration. As part of this deal, refugees will be returned to Libya from where they'll be repatriated, subsequently, to their countries of origin.
Most recently, EU member states have committed in implementing policies restricting migrants' and refugees' access to their shores and pursued policies are aimed at preventing people from leaving Libya.
“People must come first: the EU should provide safe routes for people to come to Europe and have access to a fair and transparent processes for claiming asylum,” Oxfam's executive director in Italy said.
Testimonies collected from various other sources, including other Algerian and Moroccan refugees interviewed by TRT World, along with Oxfam and the IOM, who experienced the deteriorated living conditions in these Libyan centres, confirming the existence of a human trafficking market inside some of these centres, similar to that of Al Nasr.
After sleeping for a few hours, jailed refugees open their eyes to see a sort of open market for human trafficking in the centre's courtyard. Smugglers and human traders negotiate with Al Nasr's director, Oussama, to buy migrants, they say.
Prices vary according to the nationalities. The refugees being put up “for sale” in the burgeoning slave market are mainly refugees from Sub-Saharan countries. Algerians are not generally among those sold.
“The centre’s director was telling us: the Algerians are our brothers, no harm will be done to you,” Djamel stressed.
Last week, a new report by Oxfam International and its Italian partners MEDU and Borderline Sicilia featured harrowing testimonies on torture, slavery and rape in Libya. Among the testimonies collected are those of 158 people (31 women and 127 men) whom the researchers interviewed in Italy.
“These testimonies paint a horrifying picture of the lives of refugees and other migrants in Libya. They are a damning indictment of Europe’s efforts to keep people from escaping violence, slavery and even death,” Roberto Barbieri, the executive director of Oxfam Italy, said in a statement.
“These are people who are escaping war, persecution and poverty — and yet in Libya they encounter another hell."
The worldwide smuggling market is worth $35 billion a year, William Lacy Swing, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told Reuters in an interview two months ago.
As for Abdelghani and Djamel, they escaped from Al Nasr detention centre after ten days. Slimane, along with the dozens of other Algerians caught with them, were finally repatriated by their country’s authorities, after being trapped there for weeks.
A few weeks ago, Djamel crossed to Libya once again and managed to reach Italy’s Sicily port, he told TRT World by phone. Now he is in the French capital of Paris. He hopes that, with the help of his friends, he’ll get himself settled and find a job, and build a new life.