Migrant detention centers in libya: only the smugglers are prepared

Three camps cleared, refugees gone. Libya’s coast guard expects a new mass exodus to Europe. Many will drown.

Half of all boats leaving Libya sink undetected and without survivors Photo: dpa

Libya’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga ordered the closure of three migrant detention centers in western Libya over the weekend. In Tajoura and the coastal towns of Misrata and al-Chums, hundreds of West Africans left the warehouses and schools that had been converted into prisons. From Misrata’s suburb of al-Kararim, 900 people set off on foot toward the city center on Sunday.

The UNHCR has been calling for months for the immediate release of refugees detained in Libya for illegal migration. Torture, rape and forced labor are commonplace in many of the prisons inspected, according to UN findings. They are not safe in the war between the Tripoli-based government and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Field Marshal Haftar stationed in the east: At least 50 people from six countries were killed in an LNA attack on a camp in the capital suburb of Tajoura on July 2.

Interior Minister Bashaga lamented the lack of support from Europe after the airstrike. "We will close all camps if the situation does not change," Bashaga warned after a July 17 meeting with an EU delegation. "We can’t fight a defensive war against a ruthless enemy and take care of thousands of migrants and refugees at the same time." Despite this announcement, the new development seems to have taken international organizations by surprise. UNHCR spokesman Mahecic confirmed in Geneva that they welcomed the decision, but they had no information on the fate of those released.

The guards of al-Kararim in Misrata now report to the taz that most West Africans have left the camp independently and practically penniless in unknown directions. What might befall them can be seen on the surrounding beaches. On Sunday, Red Crescent aid workers found 20 washed-up bodies in neighboring al-Chums. 100 people are missing after their wooden fishing boat capsized about four kilometers offshore.

Without radios, no distress calls either

Wearing face masks and red overalls, aid workers now patrol the kilometers of sandy beaches between the Tunisian border and al-Chums every day. Mustafa Abuzeid, commander of the patrol boat "Fezzan," sails from his base in the port of Tripoli on rescue missions almost every day. With 12 patrol boats supplied from Italy, the Libyan Coast Guard is trying to search the 70-by-300-kilometer Libyan maritime rescue zone for shipwrecked people.

"Sometimes, after several hours, we find the places of misfortune reported by the rescue center in Tripoli. Sometimes we only find parts of the inflatable boats. Boats that we don’t find in time don’t stand a chance," Abuzeid says. "This is because the tugboats overload the 10-meter inflatable boats, which are equipped with only three air chambers, with up to 200 people this summer. Previously, the maximum was 120."

Abuzeid estimates that half of the boats leaving Libya sink undetected and without survivors. "Without radios, there are no distress calls either." Libyan naval officers know from intercepted radio transmissions and smugglers’ phone calls that the traffickers are expecting a renewed rush to the sea. New fishing boats are ordered in Tunisia and Egypt, and Chinese inflatable boats are ordered online. These are delivered via the container ports in Chums or Tripoli, around 2,500 euros per boat.

Abuzeid fears that in the next few weeks all 5,000 inmates of the migrant detention camps will be released in an unorganized manner. At the moment, only the smugglers are prepared for this.