Here’s an African love story.
Adebe married her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, in Addis Ababa when she was 22. The trouble was, although Daniel was born in Ethiopia, he was of Eritrean stock, and when the two countries went to war, he was deported to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, where he was forced to join the army.
Adebe couldn’t bear the separation and fled to Sudan. When Daniel heard she was there, he deserted and escaped and joined his wife in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. It was hard there so after a few months, they decided to try to make it to Europe. It took them two weeks to cross the Sahara desert to Libya, the launchpad for boats to Italy.
En route, Adebe and Daniel were robbed of all their savings. Many of those they were with died on the way, their bodies thrown from the crowded shipping container they were crammed inside by Libyan traffickers. They ran out of water and food.
“There was no space to sit; people were vomiting, going to the toilet where they stood,” Adebe said. “People died.”
They told me their terrible story in a secret meeting in Tripoli, where they now live hand to mouth, in constant fear of arrest. Adebe and Daniel are not their real names. I had a clandestine meeting with them in a safe house. They held hands as she related what happened next.
On arrival in Tripoli, they found a room which they shared with other refugees, all from Eritrea. One night, after six weeks, the police arrived, arrested them and whisked them off to separate prisons, where they were to spend the next three years.
He suffered physical abuse at the hands of Libyan guards, he told me, in conditions which humanitarian workers who’ve visited Libya’s detention centres agree are truly grim. Foul water, bad food, no chance to wash, overcrowded, constant beatings. “Once, five soldiers came with electric sticks and beat me,” Daniel said. “For two years I cried and I prayed.”
In her women’s prison, deep in the Sahara and far from anywhere, Adebe claims she was also beaten. “Many women were raped by guards,” she whispered. “I became very sick. So sick they thought I would die, so they took me and threw me from a truck into the medina” (the old city in Tripoli).
Adebe recovered. She spent her days trying to track down her husband. Finally she found out where he was and through the first stroke of good luck in years, was introduced to a compassionate Libyan policeman who traced Daniel and secured his release. They were back together again, but they had no money and there was no work.
Today they live in a room in a broken backstreet apartment block. I went there. It’s tiny; they share it with four Eritreans. They sit around reading the Bible and, appropriately enough, playing Patience. They laughed when we told them the English name for their card game.
Adebe and Daniel now have refugee papers from the UN refugee agency. But the papers are worthless and other refugees I met told me they’re often just torn up by the police. That’s because Libya has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and does not distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants. In a country of six million people, there are an additional two million refugees/migrants, living in the shadows.
Those wanting an appointment with the UNHCR often have to wait eight months. The agency is extremely restricted in what protection it can afford refugees. Its staff are denied access to all but seven of Libya’s many detention centres, and since July access has been further restricted. One human rights group reckons there are 28 such centres just along the coast; there are many others in the desert.
Tonight, Channel 4 News will broadcast shocking evidence of just how bad things have got in these places where up to 60 people are crammed into cells 5m by 6m. In July, Libyan guards are reported to have killed more than 20 Somali refugees and injured 50 more after a riot over conditions in a detention centre at Ganfuda, near Bengazi.
There are no rules as to when detainees can be released. I spoke to many former detainees who said they had bribed their guards to buy their freedom. A charity worker told me he had sometimes drawn funds from Western Union, sent by a detainees relatives abroad. This money, he claimed, was smuggled into the centres so inmates could bribe their way out.
The going rate is US$1,000-$1200 – exactly the cost of the boat ride to Europe. “The guards know exactly how much money the migrants will have at this stage of their journey and they set their price accordingly,” the charity worker told me. “It’s a business.”
Those unable to bribe their way out say they live with the constant threat of deportation to their countries of origin. Many, from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan claim they risk persecution and say they’d rather die than return.
Pushed back from Europe
Most shocking of all is the fact that since May, Italy – on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis – has been breaking international law by forcibly returning migrants who are intercepted heading towards Italian shores from Libya. Returnees are immediately locked in the detention centres.
This violation of Italy’s legal obligations is known as refoulement – the forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom is threatened, or where they face risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. Until the “pushback” policy was enacted by the Berlusconi government in May, more than three-quarters of asylum seekers arriving on Italy’s southern shores were granted protection.
The policy has cut the number of migrants arriving in Italy by more than three-quarters in just one year, to just over 7,000. A large proportion of those pushed back to Libya, however, would have been given asylum had they made it to Europe.
Those not in detention run the gauntlet with the Libyan authorities. Many of the refugees I met say life is as precarious and dangerous outside prison as inside. Most are just stuck. The feeling of hopelessness is like nothing I’ve seen before. They can’t go home, they can’t work, they live in constant fear of arrest and their only hope is the death boat to Europe – after which they face deportation back into Libyan detention.
And that’s where Adebe and Daniel are at. “At least we are now together,” she said, but her head was bowed, and I noticed that she was quietly crying. Daniel’s teenaged brother and sister have now joined him from Asmara. When the Eritrean authorities discovered that, he says, they jailed his father on suspicion that he’d helped them escape. His mother, he says, is always crying now.
Adebe now doesn’t want to take the boat to Italy anyway. Her best friend, an Eritrean woman with whom she’d survived the Sahara crossing, died along with 73 others last month, when their boat ran out of fuel and supplies and drifted for three weeks in the Mediterranean. Nine passing European ships ignored their distress calls. The refugees died of thirst. Only five survived after being finally rescued and taken to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
Italian Catholic bishops recently declared that Europe’s habit of shunning migrants is the modern day equivalent of ignoring the deportation of Jews during the Second World War. Italy, and Europe in general, are trying to wash their hands of the problem, dumping it back with their new friend, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who human rights groups accuse of running a police state with a horrendous human rights record.
Gaddafi, who’s due to address the UN General Assembly tomorrow after President Obama, does not even formally recognise the very UN agency that could actually help him out in this crisis. It’s a mystery, even to those in the UNHCR, why he doesn’t sign the UN Convention on Refugees and put a stop to this abuse. But people are suffering and dying because of this and Europe is shamefully complicit.
Another of the refugees I met in Tripoli sent me an email last week. We need protecting in the name of human dignity, he wrote. “We are not criminals. We are not ignorant. We are people worthy of respect. We need shelter temporarily because we want to go back to where we grew up as soon as things change for the better. I am here, invisible, struggling with my fate, a victim of injustice.”
– For more on this issue, see Fortress Europe