September 21, 2009

XIV. Abuses Entering Libya

The most frequent abuses, and often the most severe, occur when entering (or trying to enter) Libya or when re-entering Libya after a failed boat departure or when being expelled from the country.  Abuses at the land borders occur on all sides, east, west, and south. The identity of the authorities committing the abuses—whether police or military—is not clear and there is also a strong element of engagement between security officials and the smugglers involved in transporting people.[160] Migrants often said that they had no problems crossing into Libya, that they saw their drivers and handlers talking with the police. However, if the price was not right, problems usually ensued.

In some cases, the problems at the border happen because the migrants are abandoned by the smugglers, so no one is negotiating their passage and bribing the appropriate officials. Fethawi, a 30-year-old Eritrean, who had spent a year and a half as a political prisoner in Eritrea, entered Libya in 2007 in a mixed group of 59 Somalis, Eritreans, and Sudanese. The tradeoff between Sudanese and Libyan smugglers in the desert failed and the Libyan smugglers left the group stranded in the desert for three days, during which time six people died. A truck driver gave them a ride to Kufra:

We left the dead people behind. The truck driver gave us a ride and dropped us near Kufra. Soldiers stopped us. Those with money paid them bribes, but those without money, including me, were beaten. Three soldiers beat me with their weapons. They searched me for money, my mobile phone. They took one of the Somali men. They demanded money from him, and when he didn’t pay, they put him on the ground and beat him with the metal crowbar from the car. I saw this. I was afraid for my life. His head was bleeding. They hit him on his ribs. We took him with us. We had to carry him because he couldn’t walk. We took him to Ajdabiya and left him there. They beat me, but I can’t complain because the Somali guy was so much worse off than me.[161]

While some people, such as Fethawi, reported that the police or soldiers beat and robbed them in the border region, others, such as Tomas, a 24-year-old Eritrean, said that the smugglers were the main perpetrators of these types of abuses near the border. His smugglers abandoned Tomas in the desert after he entered Libya in July 2006. He had spent the previous 21 days crossing the desert from Khartoum. After they paid more money, the smugglers held them up outside Kufra where they demanded more money and threatened their lives:

The smugglers were drug addicts. They didn’t bring spare parts for the vehicle. We were left stranded in the desert with no food or water. The original agreement was to pay them $250 to go from Khartoum to Kufra. But in the middle of the desert the Sudanese turned us over to the Libyans and they told us we had to pay another $300 or they would abandon us in the Sahara before we reached Libya. About 75 percent of us were able to pay. We paid for the other 25 percent, so no one was left.
From Kufra we had to pay another $300 to go to Benghazi. They used force and threatened us with knives. They beat us...The agreement was to take us directly but they held us for two days in a house outside Kufra where they demanded the money and forced us to pay.[162]

Others saw the bodies of migrants who had been left in the desert to perish. Madihah, a 24-year-old Eritrean woman, was left in the desert by smugglers, and saw what happened to others who had been similarly abandoned:

I walked to Libya after being dropped in the desert. I saw the bodies of Eritreans and their ID cards there in the desert—two ladies and a boy who looked Eritrean. It took 24 days to get through the desert. You go in an old model Toyota land cruiser and normally they put benzene in the water so you don’t drink too much. You get out and walk up the hills when it’s too sandy. There are armed bandits in the desert asking for money. Soldiers collect bribes at the border.[163]

Abuses in Libya’s Western Border Region

West Africans describe similar problems when they enter Libya’s southwestern frontier. Migrants said that border police would shoot at them. Innocent, a 19-year-old Nigerian, said, “The police stopped us at the Libya border. We escaped, we ran. They were shooting guns.”[164]

In other cases, the border police robbed the migrants outright, acting little different than criminals. Abassi, a 19-year-old Nigerian, described his first encounter with the Libyan police after a ten-day journey crossing the desert to get into Libya from the west:

When I got to Libya, the police stopped me and collected all the money in my pockets. They tore up the passports of the people in my group. They beat us with sticks and kicked us, but did not send us to jail.[165]

In reality, there seems to be little difference between the police and robbers. Samuel, a 21-year-old Nigerian, told Human Rights Watch that he was robbed both by civilians and by the police when he entered Libya at Tummo in December 2007:

As soon as I crossed the border, Libyan youths caught me. They threatened me with a knife. They told me to give them my money or they would stab me. This happened just as I arrived in Libya. I was walking along the road. They beat me.
Then the police caught me in Gharyan. They asked for my documents. Then they emptied my pockets to take whatever money or valuables they could. They took my money and pushed me away. They did not put me in detention. It was not like a bribe, it was more like a robbery.
As a black man, you hide yourself. If they catch you, they beat you, search you, rob you. You need to keep your money hidden. If you don’t give them money, they will search you for it.[166]

Emmanuel, a 34-year-old Togolese man, encountered a series of problems from both civilians and officials as soon as he entered Libya’s western border:

Robbers attacked us when we first entered Libya. It was in the desert on the border with Algeria. These were robbers, not police. They killed people, took our money and left 32 of us in the desert without food or water. Six more died of thirst. A car picked us up and took us to Al-Qatrun. After a week there, we went in another car to Sabha. There were checkpoints on the road. They check you for money. If you don’t have money they beat you and threaten to send you back in the desert to die. People lost their souls, left without food or water.
They arrested me on the road from Al-Qatrun. It was November 22, 2005. They put me in Hun Prison. It was terrible. We only had a little bread and beans once a day. We didn’t know when they would release us. I worked for the prison chief on his farm. We had no rights. No one will speak to you, even if you are sick. We had no contact with the guards. All of us were kept in one room. There were three toilets in the same room. There were many, many people in the room. No one was let out. Some were there for more than a year.[167]

Gowon, a 21-year-old Nigerian, entered Libya from Niger in 2007. He was arrested and spent three months in a detention center in western Libya.  Human Rights Watch interviewed him in the C Block of the Safi detention center in Malta. He said, “It was a prison like this, only worse.” He continued:

The food and water were bad. Five people had to share one bowl of food. They beat us every day. They would come to check on us and would punish us. They would take us one at a time and use sticks to beat us and their legs to kick us.[168]

Kwesi, a 28-year-old Ghanaian, entered Libya in 2007 from the southwest. He was arrested in Sabha and kept in a prison there for two months:

It was not good. We slept in the same place we went to the toilet. The food was beans and bread. They beat us every day. It mostly happened when the chief was not around. They hit us with sticks, usually two guards beating one person. They would throw you on the ground and beat you. The beating was for no reason. They put all of us in the same room, about 50 or 70 people with one toilet. There were no mattresses. We slept on the floor. There was no soap, no shower. Some people went crazy in that prison. Some people were kept there for a long time. My brother sent money to get me out.[169]

Migrants sometimes enter Libya, unwillingly, when the Tunisian authorities dump them across Libya’s northwestern border. The Tunisians took Ezekiel, a 24-year-old Eritrean, to the Libyan border in April 2006 and dumped him into Libya, leaving him with taxi fare so he could disappear into Libya. But he had no such luck:

The Libyan police caught us on the road to get the taxi. The Libyan soldiers beat us. They hit us with their fists and kicked us with their boots. The beating lasted for a long time. They hit my head against a wall. They took our money. They took us to the police station at An Nuqat Al Hums. We spent two months in that police station along with other foreigners who were being held there.
I speak Arabic and I spoke to [name withheld], the man in charge of that police station. I told him that this was unkind, that we had suffered greatly at sea and that the soldiers shouldn’t have taken our money. He demanded to know which soldier had taken the money. When I pointed him out, [name withheld] then had the soldier share the money with him.[170]


[160] See Linkages between Smugglers and Security and Law Enforcement Officials

[161] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B38), Caltanissetta, Sicily, May 8, 2009.

[162] Tomas Interview,

[163] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, R/L1), Rome, October 23, 2008.

[164] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B58), Lampedusa, May 14, 2009.

[165] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B35), Agrigento, Sicily, May 6, 2009.

[166] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B4), Old Ta’Kandya detention center, Malta, May 2, 2009.

[167] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B14), Malta, May 3, 2009.

[168] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B32), Safi detention center, C block, Malta, May 4, 2009.

[169] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed B44), Tapani, Sicily, May 9, 2009.

[170] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B/H12), Malta, May 2, 2009.