LIBYA is not a safe place. It is not safe for Libyan people and it is certainly not safe for Afghan, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Sudanese, Ivorian or Somali refugees.
Since 2014 the country has been fought over by the UN-backed Government of National Accord and the rebel commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (which controls the vast majority of Libya).
Despite the war, the country remains a magnet for people fleeing their countries in the hopes of reaching safety and a better life in Europe — home of their former colonial masters and governments ultimately responsible for many of their countries’ problems today.
No-one knows for sure how many people are trapped inside the country’s migrant detention camps. But secret EU documents passed on to me earlier this year revealed that the bloc believes serious human rights abuses are happening inside them.
Two months ago, a Somalian man trapped inside a detention centre told me how his captors forced him to help them extort money from their other victims.
Since then, Hufan (not his real name) managed to escape and contact me recently. Our conversation — which has been edited for grammatical reasons and to keep his identity safe — is below.
Hufan: Hello, sir. I run away from the prison.
Yesterday they are busy with war. Now I come to the capital Tripoli
Sir, can you help me?
I am afraid of drowning in the sea. Can you arrange immigration papers for me?
Militias recruit young men by force even in the capital.
I am tired of Libya. Please help me.
Ben Cowles: Hi Hufan. How are you? I’m glad you are out of the prison. I hope you are safe.
I’m sorry, I can’t arrange your papers. I think only the governments and the UN can do that.
Have you seen the UNHCR (UN’s refugee agency) or the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) in Tripoli?
H: Yes. But the UNHCR can’t help me. I was in the prison more than 10 months. I don’t believe they can do anything for me.
I will try to cross the sea. I don’t have money, so now I will try to find a job and collect up to 600 dollars.
Before I cross I will inform you. Maybe it will take five months to collect that amount of money.
BC: Hufan, I don’t think you should try to cross the sea. It’s very dangerous.
H: Libya is not safe. We can’t sleep at night. There are too many air strikes and heavy fighting.
When the militias see that you’re black, they force you to fight. They promise to pay you money if you fight, but they do not.
I am living with four Somalian boys. All of them want to the cross the sea. That’s the only option we have.
So never mind. I hope all the best for you. If I come to Europe, I will contact you. You tried to help me, I really appreciate.
Don’t worry, I am a man. I will manage.
Now, because of Coronavirus, there is no work at all. Sometimes we can’t get food.
BC: How did you escape?
H: The militia were busy, due to five cities being taken over by Haftar. All of them had to go and fight. They left just three men.
Me and six friends, we just ran. Now I am safe. Thank God.
BC: How did you get to Tripoli? Isn’t it far?
H: Yes. We travelled from city to city. But we did not come all together.
Me and one friend, we stopped cars in the street. An old man picked us up. I don’t know about the other four.
And then we came to Zawiya. We sleep behind a mosque.
In the morning, we found some black people and asked them for some money. They gave us 50 dinars. We took a taxi and came to Tripoli.
Me, I searched for some Somalian people. I found them and they called my friend. I am with him now.
[I wrote back to Hufan a day later]
BC: Hufan. How are you? Are you safe?
H: Yes, I am good. But there is too much fighting.
BC: I heard the war is very bad now. Is Tripoli being bombed?
H: Yes. Every night we hear explosions.
BC: Do you think it will be easy to find a job?
H: No. Even now, as I’m taking to you, I haven’t eaten.
Yesterday night, a Libyan family gave us some food.
We ate but today the man he is not there. Maybe he will come later. Then we will ask him some food.
He has been good to my friend. He gave him a room near a garage and they work for him. He is a good Libyan man. But the others are so bad.
I asked him to find me a job and he told me ok. I can clean cars.
The situation it’s so hard but we have to survive.
Sir, I made a mistake when I come to this country, but I was looking for good and safe life. Now I am praying day and night to get out of Libya.
Anyway, Ben, I think I distributed you with my history. I feel free when I tell you what is happening to me. Believe me, that is all.
I will be happy one day. I believe that and I will never give up. Bye.
[I didn’t read those last few lines until the next day. Of course his story wasn’t disturbing me. I was glad that he was safe. I didn’t know what I could do]
BC: I hope you will be safe someday. Libya sounds terrible. I can tell your story again, Hufan, if you think it will help?
H: Ok, please go ahead.
Now four of us we are living in the same small room. Three-days-a-week we worked for the man who gives us the room free.
We spray pesticides on a potato farm. We clean horses and give them water and grass. We do all this for just for one meal.
Sometimes when he is not home, we sleep without eating for 24 hours.
You know why this is happening to us? Because there is no strong government and we are illegal. We can’t move freely.
If they catch us again, we will go to Zawiya detention centre. And it is so bad there. We have to stay hidden. There it will be much worse for us.
Here in Libya, there is no humanity. It is a different world. Believe me.
My friend told me more than four Somalian girls are pregnant in Zawiya prison. Please, try to find out this and help them.
Tell the UN to go there and investigate.