September 21, 2009

XV. Refoulement from Libya and Dumping People in the Desert near the Border

Although the practice of dumping migrants in the border region appears not to be uncommon, there have not been clearly documented cases since 2007 of refugees or asylum seekers being forcibly returned to their countries of origin or to places from which they would be forcibly returned.[171] Human Rights Watch had the opportunity to interview two of the refugees, Milli and Aron, who the Libyan authorities forcibly returned to Eritrea in 2004. They have since fled from Eritrea again, traveled back to Libya, and this time succeeded in leaving Libya and going to Malta, where they are now living. Human Rights Watch reported the facts of the refoulement in our 2006 report, Stemming the Flow, but, of course, was not able to interview the returnees at that time, who were imprisoned upon arrival in Eritrea.  Eritreans continue to be refouled from other countries in the region.[172]

The refoulement ordeal began on May 21, 2004 when the boat that Milli and Aron were on sank off the coast of Libya. Seven of their fellow passengers drowned. The rest were caught on the coast near the village of Kums.

Milli told Human Rights Watch what happened when they returned to the Libyan shore (Aron separately told essentially the same story). It is a story of almost continuous beatings from the time they were apprehended upon landing until the time their plane took off to deport them to Eritrea two months later, at which point they were immediately jailed by their home government:

The police were there and almost everyone was caught and arrested. The one who caught me threatened me with a knife. We were tired. The police beat us with their sticks and put us in the boot of the police car. They put us in a normal house, not a police station, and kept us there one night.
The next day, they took us to Misrata. There were 172 people, all from the same boat, taken there. Misrata was a big prison. There were also other African prisoners there. I was held there for one month. I was beaten daily.
I tried to escape by bribing a guard. I paid him $150. I gave him the money, but other soldiers were waiting outside and caught me. I had a friend with me. We were both taken to a room. They beat us so much that I became sick. They used electricity. They then beat me on the inside of my foot. My foot is still injured and I still have trouble walking. Four or five guards beat me. I wasn’t able to walk for three weeks. My foot was too wounded.
The first day after I was caught trying to escape was the worst beating. After that, the beatings were normal beatings for three days in the small room with my friend, and then they returned us to the big room. The next day they sent us to Jawazat Prison where there were many nationalities. I was there almost one month. This prison was not as bad as Misrata. The beating was normal when they counted people in the morning and at night; that was when they beat people. I was transferred from there to Al Fellah prison, where I spent two days. From there we were taken to a plane. The Eritrean ambassador was there at the airport. It was July 22, 2004. There were 79 men and 30 women on the plane.
After we landed in Eritrea I was arrested and spent the next nine months in prison and the next six months after that in a special military training for prisoners. It was more like another prison, not normal military training. After the military training, they sent me back to prison again. I escaped from the prison and went to Sudan on May 1, 2007. I only spent a couple of days there and came to Libya a second time.[173]

Libya sent off another charter deportation flight with 75 Eritreans in August 2004, but the passengers hijacked the plane en route and diverted it to Khartoum, where UNHCR recognized 60 as refugees.[174] After that incident, Libya is not known to have chartered other deportation flights to Eritrea, although there was an attempt to charter a flight in July 2008 to return 230 Eritreans.[175] UNHCR was able to intervene with the authorities inside Libya and prevent their deportation.[176]

There is still a belief expressed by some Eritreans that Libya still sends Eritreans back to Eritrea. Gabriel, a 28-year-old Eritrean who spent a month in Libya in 2008, was convinced that if he was caught he would be sent back to face his persecutors in Eritrea:

If you are caught on the way by the Libyan police, then you are afraid they will return you to Eritrea. There are so many people arrested in Libya, so many prisons. If you are returned to Eritrea, it is known what kind of punishment you will face. You can be arrested for two or three months, or you can even be killed. I knew some people who were returned but I don’t know where they are. Even their families don’t know.[177]

In the years 2003 through 2006, Libya deported roughly 200,000 individuals to their home countries.[178] While the majority of these people were economic migrants who had entered the country irregularly, some of them were asylum seekers and refugees who faced the risk of persecution or maltreatment back home.

The Libyan government contends that most of the people it repatriates go home willingly,[179] but under the circumstances of detention described in this report, the lack of alternatives, and the absence of transparent deportation procedures, the line between voluntary and coerced returns is not at all clear.


Dumping in the Desert

Libyan authorities in the coastal area put migrants (particularly from the Horn of Africa) in trucks and send them to Kufra purportedly to deport them across the land border with Sudan, but often they are not actually deported, rather simply left in the Libyan desert.  Perhaps this is because Sudanese border guards are not willing to accept them (the migrants come not only from Sudan, but from Somalia, Eritrea, and elsewhere). Instead, according to testimony from migrants, they are left in the desert within Libyan territory. In practice, this means that the migrants have no choice but to put their lives in the hands, once again, of the smugglers who brought them from Kufra to Benghazi or Tripoli in the first place.

The truck journeys themselves are extremely dangerous and degrading. Migrants told Human Rights about being crammed into closed vehicles with almost no air. They would remain standing for a two-day journey, not allowed out even to urinate and defecate. Daniel, the 26-year-old Eritrean whom we also quote telling about his boat being interdicted by the Maltese Coast Guard and about his experiences in Misrata,[180] told us what happened after he left Misrata. It starts with the harrowing truck ride to the detention center at Kufra and follows with the camp manager ordering that he be thrown into the desert to die:

After three months [of detention at Misrata], the Libyans brought a truck and said they would take us back to our home countries. I said I was Sudanese. The truck took us to Kufra. It was overcrowded with 200 people and there was no air. It was very hot inside the truck. It was made of metal. If we had to urinate or defecate we had to do it in the truck where we stood. When the truck stopped, the drivers wouldn’t let us out. We arrived in Kufra. It was a very bad prison. I had a cross on my neck, which they ripped off. We had to line up with our faces against a wall. They hit us with a stick.
They didn’t take our names or fingerprints. They just herded 78 of us into one small room. There were maybe eight rooms like this. The room had no beds, and just one toilet right in the room itself, and it didn’t work. There were no windows. We couldn’t breathe. It was very dirty. There was no soap, no water, no chance to bathe. We slept on the floor body to body. There was no space. If I lifted my leg, another person would fill the space. For food, they gave us a handful of rice for seven people. Just rice and a little water.
If you made noise, the police would hit you with a metal stick. They would beat you everywhere. Some people had their arms broken and the guards did not take them to the hospital.
There was no doctor. At one point I felt very sick; I had a fever. The people started hitting the door to get the attention of the guards because I was very sick. The guards took me outside. The camp manager came and said, “Take him and throw him in the desert.”
A policeman took me, but he took pity on me and took me to the hospital instead. He bought medicine with his own money and they gave me an injection. He asked permission to let me sleep outside. Finally, when I got better, the police let me inside.
Every two or three days, the manager of Kufra camp took 25 or 30 persons at night and sold them to Libyan transporters so he could get money from us. Other people were just thrown in the desert. Sometimes they would take people in the desert and run over their legs with a car and just leave them. He sold me with a group of 25 or 30 people to a Libyan man who put us in a big house in Kufra and told us we needed to have our families send $200 to pay for our release from Kufra and to take us to Benghazi. It was too much, too much desert and some people lost hope after three, four, or five tries. I heard that a lot of people killed themselves.[181]

Being “deported” to Kufra often follows the traumatic experiences of a failed boat attempt, arrest, and detention in northern jails.  Although the authorities transport migrants to Kufra for the supposed purpose of expelling them overland to Egypt or Sudan, in fact the Kufra authorities sometimes do not actually take them to the border but rather leave them in the desert outside Kufra or make deals with smugglers who pick them up to start the process again. Tomas, a 24-year-old Eritrean, quoted above, was sent to Kufra after a failed boat attempt and two months in the Jawazat Prison in Tripoli:

After two months, they put us with another group of Eritreans—150 people in all. They put us in a big truck packed with people. There wasn’t room for anyone to sit down...The only air was from some open holes in the roof of the truck; otherwise it was completely closed. The truck drove us from Tripoli to Kufra. We started at 6 am and traveled all day and all the next night. The truck was closed the entire trip. There were cracks in the floor and people urinated on the floor, but my eyes were in pain from the smell.
We begged for air. The truck would stop for the drivers to take a break and eat, but they would not open the door for us. They were afraid we would run away. The worst was when we arrived in Kufra. At least the air circulated when we were moving. In Kufra, we stopped for two hours in 45 degree [centigrade] weather and we could hardly breathe. The truck was made of metal. They kept us in there for two hours as punishment because we were shouting during the journey. God is great; we all survived.
When they let us out of the truck, we were in Kufra Prison. We spent one week there. They fed us food only once a day. Only rice. Ramadan was over. I had already experienced two months of hunger in prison. We were now 800 prisoners crowded in different rooms. We slept on pieces of cardboard. There were no mattresses. It was dirty. The guards had no communication with us. They just opened and closed the doors.
Kufra is the border place for deportation. They just let you go from there because there is no place to go. There are always three nationalities there: Sudanese, Eritreans, and Ethiopians. They cast you back to your country at Kufra. They don’t actually take you to the border, they just let you go.
But the smugglers have an agreement with the prison commander. When they let us go, we are ready for market. The drivers wait for us outside the Kufra prison and make deals to take us to Tripoli. The drivers say that they have paid money to get us out of prison. They then take us out of the city to a place in the open bush.
The drivers told us we had to pay them money since they had paid to get us released from prison. We had either to pay the 40 dinar bribe to get us out of prison or $400 to get to Tripoli. The only way to do that is to call your family to have them send money. My family sent money and I went back to Tripoli.[182]


[171]Stemming the Flow, p. 57

[172] See Human Rights Watch, Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea, April 2009, (accessed September 9, 2009).

[173] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B/H2), Malta, May 1, 2009.

[174] See Stemming the Flow, pp. 56-57.

[175] Amnesty International, “Libya: Amnesty warns against deportation of Eritreans,” July 11, 2008, August 28, 2009).

[176]UNHCR email to Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2009.

[177]Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, L2), Sciacca, Sicily, October 26, 2008.

[178] 43,000 deported in 2003; 54,000 in 2004; 48,000 in 2005, and 54,000 in 2006. These statistics are cited as “the official” data in “Escape from Tripoli: Reports on the Conditions of Migrants in Transit in Libya,” Fortress Europe, p. 6, citing European Commission report. According to the report, in 2003, 38 percent of the returnees were Egyptians, 15 percent Nigerians, 12 percent Sudanese, 11 percent Ghanians, and 10 percent Nigerians. The remaining nationals were Moroccans, Malians, Eritreans and Somalis, and a small percentage came from Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Far East. 2004 saw a significant increase in nationals coming from Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly to Nigeria, Niger, Ghana and Mali.

[179]Libyan government memo to Human Rights Watch, April 18, 2006. See Appendix I, Stemming the Flow.

[180] See Migrant Detention Centers: Conditions and Abuses.

[181] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B/H54), Palermo, May 13, 2009.

[182] Tomas Interview,