WhatsApp call shows horrific abuse of kidnapped migrants in Libya


Hundreds of migrants crouch on the ground in a sparse concrete room. One starving Somali man lies with a huge concrete block weighing down his back. He bares the gaps in his teeth, after they have been punched out. These are just some of the shocking images of migrants imprisoned by people-smugglers in Libya, from a video that was published on Facebook on June 9.

Somali journalist Salman Jamal Said interviewed the kidnapped migrants via a video call on WhatsApp on June 8. He later streamed the recorded call on Facebook Live. The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has stated that it believes the images to be authentic. The migrants tell the journalist that they have been tortured by their captors. The young man with the block on his back says he is being punished because he could not pay his ransom of US$8000 (€7169): “I have had this stone on me for the last three days. It’s really painful.” One of the other migrants tells the journalist that they try to help the young man by taking the stone off when the kidnappers leave – but they have to put it back on him as soon as they return, otherwise they’ll be punished for helping him.

The France 24 Observers team decided not to post the video to protect the identities of the hostages. One of our journalists spoke to Salman Jamal Said, who is based in Turkey and works for Universal Somali TV.

“Each person needs to pay back their debt to the smugglers”

I got the number from a Somali family, whose son has been stuck for more than six years in Libya. They said, ‘Someone has called us from Libya, will you help us out?’ So I called the number, and a Somalian guy who acted as translator picked up the phone. He told me that they needed money to release these people. The kidnappers tell the families that they need US$8,500 (€7617) to release them.

The smugglers are both Libyan and Somali. The Libyan ones are the leaders. I spoke to a Somali smuggler. He told me that they had paid for each person to come to Libya; they paid for their food, so each person needs to pay back their debt. I told him he was Somali and that we should help our people. I’ve never seen his face. He let me do a video call with the migrants, but asked me not to call all the time.

A screenshot from the video. You can see the square showing Salman's camera in the bottom left hand corner.

They told me they were in Tripoli, but don’t know where exactly. If one of them goes out he has to be accompanied by two Libyans.

One guy told me he was forced to stay because he knew several languages. He was imprisoned and forced to act as a translator; he wasn’t allowed to travel on to Italy.

“Women are raped repeatedly”

Most of them are in contact with their families. There is one teenager from Ethiopia. His father died five years ago; he was living with his mother and he needed money. When he reached Tripoli, the smugglers told him to call his family. He said he didn’t remember the number. So now he can’t leave because he can’t pay his debt. He’s been there for years. He can’t understand what they’re saying so they’re always beating him.

A screenshot from the video. Migrants huddle on the floor.

I spoke to a family that has been there for five years: two women and two men. The smugglers come every night and take one woman and then return her the next night and take another. They are raped repeatedly. They are in a hell. The smugglers are not afraid of anything; they can do whatever they like. The Libyan government isn’t doing anything.

One thing I asked them was, ‘Do you want to go back to Somalia, or go on to Europe?’ They said, ‘We just want to go back to our homeland. We want freedom. We need to see our mothers. We need to see our families.’

"I want the video to be a lesson to people"

When I was speaking with them I was not speaking as a journalist, I was speaking to them as a Somali. I was crying when I was interviewing them. They are my people. Some of them have been there for at least six years. Some of them have gone mad. They go crazy, they can’t speak, they can’t eat, and then they die there, inside this prison. I had never seen anything like it before. I decided to make the Facebook Live video to let the government know, to let the public know what it is like in Libya and to stop people risking their lives trying to get to Libya. I want it to be a lesson to people.

A screenshot from the video.

The crossing from Libya to Italy is currently the favoured route for migrants trying to get to Europe. The IOM reports that 65,450 migrants have arrived in Italy since January 1, 2017 [until June 14], more than 90 per cent of which come from Libya. In May this year, IOM voluntarily returned 1,119 stranded migrants to their home countries from Libya. IOM is currently trying to locate and rescue the migrants pictured in the video.