These camps are run by militiamen – who were rebels during the revolution - without any authorisation from the Libyan authorities. Everyone knows that the government has no power over these armed factions. [Some of these detention camps already existed under Gaddafi’s rule. After years of pan-African politics, Gaddafi, who wanted closer ties to Europe, ultimately agreed to help control the flux of immigration to the continent].
Immigrants are held in deplorable conditions. The right to go out into the yard, like all the other camp rules, depends entirely on the militiamen’s moods. In one of the camps in Tripoli, the guards never opened the windows of a hangar in which more than 80 people were held. The heat was unbearable and I simply can’t imagine what it will be like there this summer.
At night, the detainees get a limited number of very thin foam mattresses to put on the floor to sleep on. The rest of them sleep on hard mats, and this includes women – even pregnant women – and children. The militiamen claim they pay for the immigrants’ food out of their own pockets, but we saw bags of rice and pasta with the World Food Programme (WFP) logo stamped on them. These supplies are provided by a local humanitarian organisation called Libaid, which receives aid from several international organisations such as WFP.
Even if the detainees decided to riot against their living conditions, they would be easily repressed – some of them showed us markings they’d gotten from beatings. The militiamen insulted them right before our very eyes, and their attitude toward their wards was always threatening. They were armed at all times with Kalashnikovs. We also came to believe that there was some sort of arrangement between the guards and the women in the camp, who exchanged favours for food or the right to go outside.
Inside Benghazi’s Ganfuda camp.
Women crouch on the ground beside armed militiamen at Ganfuda.
“The militiamen didn’t seem to realise they were doing anything wrong by detaining these people in camps”
Even for those who do figure out where to go, renewing their papers today is highly dependent on what they do for a living. For example, I met a Filipino nurse who was able to renew her papers without any problems. This is because there is a need for people to work in certain sectors, such as the health sector or the oil sector. The majority of Sub-Saharan Africans, however, work in construction, carpentry, or as electricians, but reconstructing the country in that sense isn’t a priority right now. There are a lot of unfinished construction sites throughout Libya, but that’s because a number of businesses that used to hire immigrant labour went under during the war.
What struck us the most was the fact that the militiamen didn’t seem to realise they were doing anything wrong by detaining these people in camps. They said they were merely ‘cleansing their country’ of illegal immigrants. But in practice and principle, what they are doing is racist. The vast majority of people arrested or sent to detention centres are black. In stark contrast, we saw Egyptians who were held a mere four days before being repatriated.
Inside Gharyan’s Burashada camp.
"The only way for detainees to escape is to work on nearby farms"
We’ve also heard about groups that entice workers from other parts of Africa to come to Libya to extort money from them. They spread false information about the demand for labour to draw people fleeing conflicts or drought in neighbouring countries like Somalia or Mali. They’re brought across the border on busses or in taxis driven by chauffeurs who work for these groups. Once on the road, they seize all their passengers’ money and belongings before steering them to a detention centre on the premises that they do not have the appropriate visas to work in Libya. Some embassies were alerted to the practice and went to find and repatriate their citizens, but this rarely happens. We were told that detainees can try to negotiate their release by bribing guards with cash. We’ve also been told that some immigrants were ultimately sent back home because the camps had become overcrowded.
Outside of these isolated incidents, the only way for detainees to escape is to work on nearby farms. The farmers come to get them, and then they are put into trucks to go work for a pittance. Some take this opportunity to flee.