Migrants escape detention in Libya after WhatsApp appeal

Screengrabs of a video filmed by a group of Nigerian migrants while they were detained in Libya.
Screengrabs of a video filmed by a group of Nigerian migrants while they were detained in Libya.


A group of Nigerians are now free after managing to film the shocking conditions in the detention centre where they were being held in Libya back in July 2018. They used WhatsApp to send the video to a friend, who promptly shared it widely. The video, in which they appeal for help from the Nigerian authorities, went viral. The UN migration agency organised for the migrants to be brought home to Nigeria. Now safe and sound, they told the FRANCE 24 Observers about their terrifying experience.

On July 17, 2018, a contact sent this video to the France 24 Observers. In it, two Nigerians show viewers the cell that they are confined to in the Al Nasr detention centre in Zawiya, Libya and talk about the horrible living conditions.

The migrants filmed this video in which they showed the conditions in the detention centre where they were being held and appealed to authorities to rescue them. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team started investigating the detention centre in Zawiya where the migrants said they were imprisoned. Meanwhile, the video began to go viral in Nigeria.

Our team found photos of the interior of the detention centre published in the media. The cells in those photos matched those in the video: same wall coulour, same size, same doors. Moreover, the meals given to the prisoners also matched.

FRANCE 24 then sent the video to the Libyan branch of the UN’s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), whose staff visit the Zawiya detention centre regularly to provide humanitarian assistance to residents (as shown in photos posted on their Facebook page). In the video, the men say several times that they want to go back to Nigeria and call on the IOM, their government and several different well-known Nigerian pastors to help them.

Employees from the IOM went to the centre and offered the detainees the possibility of being voluntarily returned to their country of origin.

To protect the people detained in Zawiya, the FRANCE 24 Observers team decided to wait to publish this article until they were back in Nigeria, safe and sound. However, in spite of these precautions, the guards at the detention centre learned about their video and punished the two men who made it, Efe Onyeka and Frank Isaiah. FRANCE 24 spoke to Onyeka and Isaiah after they had returned to Lagos, along with 162 other Nigerians.

"All of the prisoners wanted us to make this video, in spite of the risks”

Twenty-five-year-old Efe Onyeka filmed the video of the migrants’ appeal. Back athome in Delta State, Nigeria, he told the FRANCE 24 Observers how he managed to film inside the detention centre.

Other prisoners managed to sneak a phone into the detention centre. They hid it from the guards because phones are forbidden inside its walls.

Once we had the phone, we were able to talk to our friends and families on WhatsApp and explain to them what we were going through. One of my friends suggested that I make a video to plead for help. I thought it was a good idea. I spoke to the 31 other men in my cell and they all agreed that I should make this video, in spite of the risks.

At the end of the video, we say that if the guards found out what we had done, we’d be in trouble. And that is exactly what happened. We were beaten and deprived of food, especially the six Nigerians in our cell. But they really took it out on Frank.

"When the guards found out about the video, they beat me for six hours”

Thirty-five-year-old Frank Isaiah is one of the men who appears in the video.

I spent four months in the Al Nasr detention centre in Zawiya after trying to cross the Mediterranean. My friend and I made this video to show the horrible living conditions that we were subjected to, including the food and the so-called bathroom.

The problem is that someone told the guards about this video. They watched it on Facebook.

So they put a metal chain around my neck and beat me for six hours outside of the prison. I slipped into a coma and they thought that I was dead.

When they saw that I was still breathing the next morning, they locked me in a cell by myself. I could no longer walk. They deprived me of food and water and told me that I couldn’t go back to Nigeria.

They contacted my family and made them pay about 500 euros as punishment for my having filmed the video. They later asked them for 600 more euros to pay for my food. [Editor’s note: meals consisted of a piece of bread at lunch and plain pasta in the evening].

Now, I am back in Rivers State, Nigeria. The IOM has promised to help me find a job, but I am still waiting. I’m 35 years old and I would like to go back to school so that I can have a good profession.

But if I stay stuck here with no job, then I will make another attempt to get to Europe, if the opportunity arises.


The IOM chartered a flight between Tripoli and Lagos on August 30 so that Frank, Efe and other people trapped in the Al Nasr detention centre could return to Nigeria.

Three days later, Frank, Efe and other survivors participated in a religious ceremony held in the church of the well-known Nigerian pastor TB Joshua, who Efe had appealed to in the video. The survivors were given food and money, which was donated by congregants. 

Survivors of a detention centre in Libya tell their stories in the church of Pastor TB Joshua on September 3, 2018. (Photo posted on the pastor’s Facebook page).

Very often, people on the migration route through Libya have their phones stolen early on in their journey, sometimes by the first smugglers who they encounter.

"The only way to get a smartphone in a detention centre is to pay”, says a Libyan human rights researcher in Tripoli who asked for his name to be withheld for security reasons. “If you have money, you can get almost anything smuggled into these centres, from good food to a smartphone. You can even buy your freedom if you have money. But managing to film a video and share it on social media under the noses of the guards is much rarer and much more dangerous. Very few migrants would dare to do such a thing.”


A detention centre implicated in charges of human trafficking

The detention centre where Isaiah and Onyeka filmed their appeal is an official centre and is thus supposed to be under the control of the internationally-backed Libyan government. (Libya has been enmeshed in civil war for years and this government is contested by a second rival government known as the GNC). Since it is an official center, the government agency dedicated to combating illegal migration should be running it. However, in reality, this detention centre is being run by one of the most powerful militias in Libya.

"The Al Nasr brigade controls the petrol refinery located near to the centre,” said the human rights researcher. “The brigade works alongside the Zaouïa coast guards, who bring them migrants whose boats have been intercepted at sea. The head of the Al Nasr brigade is Mohammed Kachalf, who was sanctioned in June 2018 for a list of crimes, including human smuggling and exploitation of migrants. After the sanctions against Kachalf were announced, the Libyan government decided to close the Al Nasr detention centre. However, Kachalf refused to do so and, so, it is still in operation.”

Conditions in the detention centre “are inhumane, with severe overcrowding, shortages of food and other basic necessities, and no access to medical care,” according to a report by the UN mission in Libya.

The Zawiya coast guards, who have strong links to the Al Nasr brigade, are accused by UN investigators of human trafficking. In spite of this, they are considered partners by the European union in the fight against illegal immigration, according to the Washington Post.

They get both grants and training from the European Union, whose goal is to keep as many migrants from reaching Europe’s shores as possible.


This article was written by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas).