Migrant life in Libya: Extortion, kidnappings, gun violence

Brice was shot in the foot by the men who tried to kidnap him. Photo blurred by France 24 to protect his identity.
Brice was shot in the foot by the men who tried to kidnap him. Photo blurred by France 24 to protect his identity.

Libya’s descent into chaos and violence over the past five years hasn’t spared migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who arrive in the country with the hopes of crossing the Mediterranean and reaching Europe. Since 2011, Libya has been swarming with militias and many of these vulnerable migrants fall prey to them. A young Cameroonian man told us about the horrors that he faces living in Tripoli – including frequent extortion, repeated kidnappings and even being shot.

Brice, aged 24, hoped that Libya would be his gateway to Europe, but it has turned into an open-air prison. In 2014, after spending four years in Morocco without managing to make it to Europe, he decided to go to Libya. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 264,000 migrants and refugees live in Libya. Like many other people, Brice thought going to Libya would give him a better shot at making the crossing to Europe.

But these hopes were an illusion. Two years after arriving in Tripoli, Brice still hasn’t set foot in a boat bound for European shores. Instead, his daily life is full of fear and violence. The armed groups that sprang up in Libya in 2011 take advantage of the lack of state authority to rob and harass vulnerable migrants. Brice has already been kidnapped once by militiamen once and, on August 3, he narrowly escaped another attempted kidnapping. He was shot in the foot while escaping.

"The moment we step outside, we are afraid because people always harass us”

The day started off like any other: I left home in the morning with a friend to try and find work. Most often, we work on construction sites; we try to save a little bit of our earnings to pay to cross the Mediterranean. On that particular day, two armed men suddenly got out of a car and attacked us. They took all of the money that we had on us, which was about €320. Because we don’t have anywhere to keep our savings, we always carry our money with us. So we lost everything.

The armed men then ordered us to get into their car. We refused because we knew what was going to happen - they wanted to kidnap us. So they started firing in every direction. A bullet grazed my friend’s back. Another bullet pierced my foot and came out the other side. I’m injured and my wounds haven’t been treated.

I don’t have a passport and I entered Libya illegally so I can’t go to the hospital because the police would arrest me there. I went to see a doctor who helps migrants secretly. He tried to disinfect my foot but he said that there wasn’t much else he could do and that I should go to the hospital. It really hurts. I can’t walk anymore.

Brice was shot in the foot by the people who tried to kidnap him. This photo was blurred by France 24.

Life in Libya is really hard. When we step outside, we are afraid. You have to try to keep a very low profile because people are always trying to harass us. Everyone is armed so it is hard to defend yourself.

In October 2015, I was kidnapped by a Libyan who offered me work. I climbed into his car and he suddenly announced that I was going to be imprisoned. He brought me to a house that had been transformed into a sort of prison. This happens all the time in Libya – migrants are kidnapped by armed groups who then call their prisoner’s families and demand a ransom. Luckily, on that occasion, I managed to escape when night fell.

That’s not the only thing that has happened to me. In 2015, a smuggler stole my money. He made me pay €400 with the promise he would take me to Europe and, after that, he disappeared.

Brice feels trapped:

I can’t return to Morocco because the road towards Algeria is too dangerous and there is a real threat of kidnapping. Moreover, there is no Cameroonian embassy in Libya to help me.

“You never know if the officer who stops you is actually a police officer”

Wael El-Hamrooni is a member of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) in Tripoli. The organisation had to pause its activities after a militia kidnapped and tortured its president for eight months. But Wael El-Hamrooni continues to closely follow the situation of migrants in Libya.

Migrants have been the victims of violence and trafficking for years, but the situation has gotten much worse over the past four years. The Islamist government of the General National Congress (GNC), also called the "National Salvation Government", has controlled the capital Tripoli since August 2014. Just before it was disbanded last April, the GNC created a brigade that was supposed to arrest undocumented migrants.

This brigade was made up of militiamen who have no knowledge of human rights. They do whatever they want. They steal from the migrants and engage in criminal activity to make money. The new Government of National Accord is extremely weak and can’t control these militias.

The wide circulation of weapons and the huge economic crisis in Libya also explain this increase in crime. Kidnappings have become common in Libya, and this affects both migrants and native Libyans.

You never know if the officer who stops you is actually a police officer or if he is actually a militiaman who wants to abduct you. Some officers are in uniform but others aren’t. In general, the only thing you see is Kalachnikov on their shoulders. As migrants have limited resources and few people who they can call on for help, they are the most vulnerable.

Recently, the International Organization for Migrants repatriated a group of migrants from Guinea. They have also helped Nigerians return home in the past. However, the Cameroonian Embassy in Tunisia, whose staff is also responsible for Libya, said that very few migrants contact them for help returning to Cameroon as they are determined to go to Europe, whatever the cost.