In this May 21, 2019 photo provided by an African migrant, hundreds of migrants stage a protest in a detention center in the town of Zintan, western Libya, appealing for help from the United Nations. (Photo: AP)
For hundreds of African migrants, dreams of a new life in Europe have instead ended in a detention center in the remote desert of war-torn Libya, where they say they have been held for months amid raw sewage, piles of garbage, disease, maggots and barely enough food to survive.
Their plight, detailed in interviews with The Associated Press and social media images leaked last month, brings new attention to the waves of migrants from across Africa who have flowed into Libya in recent years seeking passage across the Mediterranean to Europe — and the highly effective efforts to stop them in their tracks.
“Our life is worse and terrible from day to day,” wrote an Eritrean migrant who is among 700 held in the detention center run by one of Libya’s militias out of a complex dominated by a hangar near the western town of Zintan.
Others who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution said in texts to the AP that at least 22 migrants have died since September — a figure confirmed by United Nations and Doctors Without Borders aid workers — and that at least 100 migrants were sick with disease, mainly tuberculosis. Some migrants said the center includes 100 minors who live side by side with adults.
“We need emergency evacuation from Zintan,” one told the AP. “We suffer physically, mentally and emotionally.”
Photos and videos taken by migrants showed heaps of garbage in the hangar, parts of the center flooded with sewage and plates of food crawling with maggots. The hangar had only four toilets, along with buckets for detainees to urinate in.
Migrants said they were not allowed out to see the sun, and the head of the center would often deprive them of food and water for days as a form of punishment. Those who were given food got only a small plate of pasta or couscous each day and had to share water that a few detainees were allowed to fetch once a day in buckets.
Internal memos and emails obtained by the AP show disagreement among aid agencies over conditions at the center, with one nonprofit working on behalf of the United Nations denying there was lack of food, even as it acknowledged it had not been able to see most of the migrants held there.
Migrants in the Zintan center and their advocates accused U.N. aid agencies of being slow to respond or forgetting them altogether. But the U.N refugee agency, or UNHCR, disputes that, saying the Libyan militias who run the facility have denied their workers access to all parts of it.
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi told the AP that after photos from inside the site emerged last month, the agency intervened and evacuated 96 migrants from a separate building at the facility where it had access. They were sent to the one U.N.-run center for migrants in Tripoli.
“It is not because of lack of will or not even because of lack of resources,” Grandi said. “Access in Libya is the fundamental obstacle to saving more lives.”
Col. Nasser Nakoua, part of the militias who run the detention center in Zintan, denied there was any lack of access to the facility.
“Those saying that they have no access are just lying. The doors are open, and we want the agencies to come and help or just shut the place down, because there is severe shortage in everything,” he told the AP by phone.
He blamed the government, which is nominally in control of the facility, for failing to fund its operations. “We received nothing from Department for Combating Illegal Migration,” he said, referring to the body in charge of the facilities, “not a single penny.”
Libya became a major crossing point for migrants to Europe after the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, when the North African nation was thrown into chaos, armed militias proliferated and central authority fell apart.
Currently, a U.N.-aligned but weak administration in Tripoli oversees the west, where Zintan is located, but much of its powers are in the hands of militias. Eastern Libya is controlled by a rival government aligned with the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, who in April launched an offensive on Tripoli.
Some human rights advocates blame the European Union for the migrant crisis because it has funded Libya’s coast guard to stop the crossers at sea. That effort has been highly effective, with the number of people entering the EU via the central Mediterranean cut from 180,000 in 2016 to 23,400 last year and just 880 in the first four months of this year, according to the EU border agency Frontex.
At least 6,000 migrants from such nations as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan are locked in dozens of detention facilities run by militias accused of torture and other human rights abuses. And that comes after often-arduous journeys at the mercy of traffickers who are known to abuse migrants and hold them for ransom money from families back home.
The EU said in a statement that it is not ignoring what it described as the “dire” situation of refugees and migrants stranded in Libya. It said it has repeatedly denounced inhumane conditions in detention centers and demanded their closure.
Responding to questions from the AP, the EU said a joint task force with the African Union and the United Nations is seeking safer alternatives for migrants outside Libya, including by stepping up evacuations and legal resettlement.
Grandi said UNHCR has succeeded in sending 4,000 migrants to Niger to await resettlement, while the International Organization for Migration has helped some 35,000 return to their home countries.
But for those in Zintan, little has changed. The facility, originally a youth summer camp, has such a bad reputation that migrants in other detention centers caught in the crossfire of fighting between Libya’s warring factions refuse to be sent there.
“They prefer to die under bombs and not go through the slow death in Zintan,” said Giulia Tranchina, a human rights lawyer from the UK-based Wilsons Solicitors who has been in direct contact with migrants trapped in Zintan and other places.
An official with International Medical Corps said in memos obtained by AP that it had established a clinic at a smaller building at the center and was providing health care. He said reports of lack of food and water were untrue, though quality was poor, and that guards sometimes withheld water as punishment.
He acknowledged that his group could not get into the hangar where most of the migrants were held until last month, and that it was up to guards to bring out detainees for medical treatment.
But Doctors Without Borders, an aid agency that did manage to visit the detention facility, said it found several malnourished migrants and confirmed the tuberculosis outbreak.
Julien Raickman of Doctors Without Borders in Libya called on other countries to step forward to take in migrants for resettlement and criticized the European Union, saying it made a choice to empower Libya’s coast guard to intercept migrants at sea and bring them back to Libya.
“These people are returned back to one of the most dangerous places on Earth,” he said.