Returned to a war zone: One boat. 53 dreams. All blocked by Europe's anti-migrant policies
By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 28, 2019
TRIPOLI, Libya — Dozens of glum-faced African men sat on the cement floor of the packed migrant detention center, the air thick with body odor.
The steel door was locked. The migrants' phones, and what meager money they had, had been confiscated. In another room, dozens of African women, including several expectant mothers, were also locked up.
"I want to get out of this place," said Stella Wisdom, 25, a Nigerian who was eight months pregnant and weeping.
Three days earlier, the men and women had climbed into a smuggler's boat destined for Italy, following the route of thousands of migrants this year who have risked death in search of a better life. But they were picked up by a European Union-funded Libyan coast guard boat and taken back, like so many before them, to Tripoli - an active war zone.
They became the latest casualties of EU and Italian policies created to keep migrants away and outsource their care to Libya, the volatile North African oil producer now in the grip of its worst violence since the NATO-backed campaign that toppled dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
"We were running away from the war," said Clara Obiti, 24, a tall, soft-voiced Nigerian. "Now we're back here."
Since their implementation in 2017, the policies have sharply reduced migrant crossings in the Mediterranean Sea, and, as a result, deaths. But the proportion of deaths to attempted crossings has increased, according to the International Organization for Migration. Roughly 14,500 migrants this year have reached Italy and Malta, Libya's nearest European neighbors. More than 8,600 were intercepted and returned to Libya. At least 743 migrants have died in the attempt. That sea journey remains the planet's deadliest.
This is a story of what happened to one boat of mostly African migrants, in one episode in the sprawling global tragedy of displacement, migration and human trafficking. Instead of leading to new opportunities, the migrants' attempt at crossing became another turn in the seemingly endless cycle of abuses, violence and disappointment they have endured since leaving their homelands.
For many, it was their first sea journey.
None could swim.
They came from Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal and other West African nations. What they shared was poverty and a belief that the only way to secure their families was to leave their homelands.
Wisdom left her home in Lagos, Nigeria, two years ago. Her parents had died, and work was scarce. She borrowed roughly $1,100 from relatives to pay a smuggler to take her through Niger and north to Tripoli.
She joined dozens of migrants in a convoy of pickups. The journey stretched for days across scorching desert. They ran out of water, Wisdom said, and 10 died. She survived, she said, "only by grace of God."
When they reached the Libyan town of Sabha, they were sold to other traffickers, who imprisoned them for a month. Wisdom was handed a cellphone and forced to call her brother to send another $1,100 to secure her release. "They were raping girls," she said. "I paid my money on time. That's the only reason they didn't rape me."
The Washington Post cannot independently verify the accounts. But scores of migrants have described similar abuses in the past four years.
A female smuggler brought Gift Samuel, 24, to Tripoli a year ago without incident to join the estimated 640,000 migrants in Libya. But for the next six months, she said, she paid her entire wages as a house cleaner - $200 a month - to the woman, a fellow Nigerian. Only then could she start sending money to her impoverished family back home.
In Tripoli, the migrants face racial discrimination. Police raid their homes to extort money. Militiamen shake them down at gunpoint.
"Every black here is suffering," said Rashid Shodipo, 34, also from Nigeria.
Wisdom found a job doing housekeeping for an "Arabu," as the migrants call Libyans. She earned around $150 a month. But some months, she said, her employers didn't pay. They made her work long hours, even when she became pregnant with her first child. Then she had a miscarriage.
"It was because of the stress of working in the Arabu's house," she said.
The war in Tripoli brought more turmoil.
When the violence erupted in April, Wisdom and other migrants found themselves living on the front lines, trapped between the militias of the U.N.-installed Government of National Accord and those of the commander in the country's east, Khalifa Hifter.
"I woke up one morning and the fighting had reached us," Obiti said.
Gun-wielding militiamen knocked on Samuel's door one night and ordered the men out, she said. They took their phones and demanded money. "Then they wanted to speak to the women in private," she said. "Many were forced to sleep with the militias." She didn't know which side they were from.
Wisdom, too, fled her house.
Others lost jobs. Some were so desperate they considered entering squalid migrant detention centers. But the centers, many of them near front lines, had become targets. In early July, an airstrike pulverized the Tajoura detention center in Tripoli, killing at least 53 migrants.
In the months after, hundreds of migrants flowed to a U.N. way station for refugees approved to leave the country. It soon became overcrowded, and the United Nations was unable to assist them all.
Many of the more than four dozen migrants who three days earlier had boarded that boat for Italy once saw their future in Libya. Despite the challenges, the country still offered their best avenue to provide for their families.
The fighting altered that thinking.
"I worked here for seven years sending money home," said Kwame Adjei, 38, from Ghana. "I have to pay for the school of my two children back home.
"But Libya is no good at this time."
Wisdom feared that her Libyan employers would force her to work and that she would lose another baby.
"I believed that when I got to Europe, it would be better for my child than being in Libya," she said.
For this dream, she was willing to risk both their lives on the boat.
The boat embarked Oct. 26 from the western town of Zuwara. The first sign of trouble was the departure time: 10 a.m., not the dark of night.
"To me, it was strange," said David Mikey, 30, a broad-shouldered Nigerian. Some Libyan coast guard members are part of the smuggling mafia, U.N. investigators say, detaining vulnerable migrants and extorting money from them. When Mikey asked the smugglers about their plan, he was told a charity rescue ship was waiting a couple of hours away to take the migrants to Italy.
"Even if the smugglers wanted to trick me, I didn't care," he said. "In Libya, we had no more options. We had to get to Europe."
The rubber boat, roughly 24 feet by 6 feet, was powered by a 50-horsepower engine. Only a few of the migrants wore life jackets.
After five or six hours at sea, the boat's captain discovered that his compass was broken. Rain fell, and the sea turned rough. Migrants urged the captain to call for help, but the handheld Thuraya satellite phone had no credit.
"Everyone was scared," Mikey said. "We all thought we were going to die."
They spent the night on the boat. The next day, they spotted a white airplane. The migrants waved their arms. Within hours, a Libyan coast guard vessel approached.
It was not the rescue ship they had expected. Italy and the EU have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster Libya's coast guard and migrant detention centers. Italy and other European nations have prevented rescue ships from docking in their ports.
Still, migrants were grateful. "They came to rescue us when we were in distress," Wisdom said. "Nobody died on the boat."
Then, as they neared Tripoli, the nature of their situation sunk in: They were heading back to a war zone.
"I paid money to go and make more money in Europe to take care of my mother," Obiti said. "Who is going take care of my mother now?"
The migrants were taken to the Janzour detention center, a small facility in the heart of Tripoli. Two days later, many of the migrants still wore the clothes in which they had embarked. Some lay sick.
Armed pro-government militiamen stood guard outside.
"We are locked up all day," Shodipo said.
"They collected our phones," Samuel said. "We cannot call our families to tell them that we are alive."
On the first day, the migrants were each given a small piece of bread and some couscous. On this day, some rice. It wasn't food they normally ate, but at least they hadn't been beaten. In other migrant detention centers, torture, rape, extortion and other abuses are widespread. Many expected worse days lay ahead.
"The guards haven't asked us for money yet," Samuel said. "But we only came here on Sunday."
What worried them most was the day after. How would they navigate the war? Would they be allowed to leave? Would they be sent to a third country, such as Rwanda, for which several hundred migrants have left in recent months?
Some said they would try again to reach Europe. Others said they would take their chances with the conflict in Libya. Few wanted to be sent home.
"If Nigeria was OK, we would not come to this country," Samuel said. "If we have parents with money, they would not have allowed us to take the risks to cross the desert."
For Wisdom, something unexpected had come of the crossing. She had a found a name for her unborn daughter.
The baby was the reason her mother was willing to endure the ordeals she has faced - and continues to face.
"I will name her Testimony," Wisdom said, a slight smile breaking across her tear-stained face.