The Souq al Khamis detention centre in Khoms, Libya, is so close to the sea that migrants and refugees can hear waves crashing on the shore. Its detainees – hundreds of men, women and children – were among 15,000 people caught trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats in 2018, after attempting to reach Italy and the safety of Europe.
They’re now locked in rooms covered in graffiti, including warnings that refugees may be sold to smugglers by the guards that watch them.
This detention centre is run by the UN-backed Libyan government’s department for combatting illegal migration (DCIM). Events here over the last few weeks show how a hardening of European migration policy is leaving desperate refugees with little room to escape from networks ready to exploit them.
Since 2014, the EU has allocated more than €300 million to Libya with the aim of stopping migration. Funnelled through the Trust Fund for Africa, this includes roughly €40 million for the Libyan coast guard, which intercepts boats in the Mediterranean. Ireland's contribution to the trust fund will be €15 million between 2016 and 2020.
One of the last 2018 sea interceptions happened on December 29th, when, the UN says, 286 people were returned to Khoms. According to two current detainees, who message using hidden phones, the returned migrants arrived at Souq al Khamis with scabies and other health problems, and were desperate for medical attention.
On New Year’s Eve, a detainee messaged to say the guards in the centre had tried to force an Eritrean man to return to smugglers, but others managed to break down the door and save him.
On Sunday, January 5th, detainees said, the Libyan guards were pressurising the still-unregistered arrivals to leave by beating them with guns. “The leaders are trying to push them [to] get out every day,” one said.
“First they take them outside and [tell] them that they must get out… People say they don’t want to, then the police start to beat them. They want to sell them to the smugglers and the smuggler will send them to the sea.”
On the same day, January 5th, the guards reportedly told detainees the centre was too crowded so they would have to move. Witnesses say 37 Eritrean men and six Eritrean women were taken, as well as Egyptians, Bengalis and possibly Somalis. At least 22 were under 18, and four were women, they say.
Some of those taken away later phoned relatives to say they were with an Eritrean smuggler called Abedusalem, who holds refugees and migrants in Bani Walid, an inland town 160km from Khoms. One phoned his sister in Europe to say he needs to pay $5,000, after which he hopes to be put on a boat to Europe again. In Libya, refugees and migrants are often sold between smuggling gangs after they pay ransoms, meaning there is no guarantee that will happen.
Bani Walid is known as the “ghost city” to migrants and refugees in Libya. “Every corner in Bani Walid is another horror story,” said a man who was held there by smugglers for more than a year. “If they see any black person, especially Eritreans, they think to pick him or her up and sell them or make them their own slave.”
Refugees previously held by Abedusalem say he is one of the more humane smugglers, and usually doesn’t torture people he is holding, although he does keep them in substandard conditions, with little medical care or food. “But [if] they are sold to the Libyan smugglers, of course it will be worse,” one said.
The Irish Times spoke to six current and former detainees of Souq al Khamis, who said detainees have routinely been transferred to smugglers directly from the detention centre over the past two years.
“It’s a market of people,” one current detainee said in a text message, appealing for evacuation to a safe country.
His family sold their house to pay almost $10,000 in ransoms, he said, as he was transferred between smuggling groups. “Now death is okay for me if someone asks me to pay.”
Two other Eritreans, who were held in Souq al Khamis at the end of 2017, said they knew 18 people sent to smugglers directly from the centre. Eight died from torture, they said, because their families couldn’t raise a $12,000 ransom for their release.
The EU says it is supporting "national authorities to foster their capacity to counter migrant smuggling". However, in reality, the difference between Libyan authorities and smuggling gangs is not clear.
In an emailed response to queries, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the EU “recognises that conditions in Libyan detention centres are a matter of great concern” and was working to improve them. Libyan authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said it was aware that a number of people taken to Souq al Khamis were unaccounted for. "UNHCR is continuing to look into the situation and we remain concerned for their safety and wellbeing," he said, adding that the agency did not have access to locations where refugees were kept captive by smugglers.
He said no one rescued in the Mediterranean should be returned to Libya, “in part due to the volatile security situation, routine use of detention centres and widespread reports of human rights violations. UNHCR reiterates its call to resettlement countries to accelerate additional resettlement places to evacuate refugees out of Libyan detention centres as a matter of urgency”.
Refugees agree that until there are more evacuations, they have no way out from a cycle of detention centres, smuggling, and European-funded interceptions. “This is Libya,” one refugee said, with resignation.