Reportage Libya: inside the immigrants detention centre of Misratah
MISRATAH - At night, from the courtyard of the prison, you can hear the sound of the sea. They are the waves of the Mediterranean, a hundred meters from the fence of the detention centre. We are in Misratah, 210 km east of Tripoli, in Libya. And the prisoners they are all Eritrean asylum seekers arrested off Lampedusa or in the suburbs of Tripoli. Victims of the collateral effects of the Italo-Libyan agreement against immigration. They are more than 600 people, from 20 to 30 years old, including 58 women and several children and babies. The majority was arrested two years ago, but none of them has been tried by a court. They sleep in rooms with no windows, 4 meters per 5, up to 20 people in each one, on the ground. At least they are allowed to stay in the courtyard, under the watchful eyes of police. Their fault? Having tried to reach Europe in order to look for asylum.
Eritrean diaspora is passing through Lampedusa and Malta. Since 2005 at least 6,000 refugees from the former Italian colony have landed on Sicilian shores, fleeing Isaias Afewerki's dictatorship. The situation in Asmara continues to be critical. Amnesty International denounces arrests and harassment of opponents and journalists. And the tension with Ethiopia remains high, so that at least 320,000 Eritreans are forced to the military service for an indefinite period, in a country of 4.7 millions inhabitants. Every year many deserted the army and run away to rebuild their lives. Most of them stop in Sudan: more than 130,000 people. The others instead cross the Sahara, reach Libya and take a boat to Europe.
The first time I heard about Misratah it was in the spring of 2007, during a meeting in Rome with the director of the High Commissioner for Refugees (Unhcr) in Tripoli, Mohamed al Wash. Few months later, in July 2007, thanks to an Eritrean association, we managed to make a telephone contact with a group of Eritrean prisoners. They complained for the overcrowded conditions, the lack of hygiene, and their precarious state of health, particularly for pregnant women and babies. They also accused some police officers for having committed sexual harassment. At that time Amnesty International had already expressed its deep concern about the deportation of Eritreans arrested in Libya. And on September 18th 2007, the Eritrean diaspora organized demonstrations in major European capitals to sustain them.
The director of the camp, Colonel 'Ali Abu 'Ud, knows well the international reports on Misratah, but denies them: "Everything they told you is false" he says proudly. He seats at his desk, dressing jacket and tie, behind a bouquet of fake flowers in his office on the first floor. From the window I see a crowded courtyard with more than 200 detainees. Abu 'Ud visited in July 2008 some reception centres in Italy, with a Libyan delegation. He talks about Misratah as a five-star hotel compared to the other Libyan detention camps. And probably he is right... After a long insistence, with a colleague of the German radio, Roman Herzog, he allows us to speak to the Eritrean refugees. We go into the courtyard, and we divided. I interview F., 28 years old, who spent 24 months in this prison. While he speaks I realize that I'm not listening to him. Actually I'm simply imagining to be in his shoes. We have roughly the same age, but he is throwing in the rubbish the best years of his life, forgotten in this prison.
In the opposite corner of the courtyard, Roman has been able to speak for a while to a refugee far from the security officers who follow our work and translate everything to the chief. His name is S.. He speaks freely: "Brother, we are in a bad situation here, we are tortured, mentally and physically. We have been here for two years and we don't know what will be our future. You can see it by yourself, look!". Meanwhile, the interpreter joins them and informs the Colonel, who interrupts the interview and asks S. if he does not want to return to Eritrea. Roman invites the refugee to walk fast towards the rooms before the director stop them again. "We are all Eritreans – he keeps on saying -. I came to Libya in 2005. We look for political asylum, because of the situation in our country. But the world doesn't care about us. It is not easy to stay two years in prison, without any comfort. We're in jail, we are not allowed to see the world outside. All we
need is freedom".
Inside the room, 18 people sit on blankets and dirt mattresses on the floor. The room measures four meters by five. There are no windows. "It is too overcrowded - says S. – We can't see the sunlight and there is no air supply. In the summer it's very hot, and people get sick. The same in the winter, it's very cold at night". It's the end of November, and the prisoners are wearing sea sandal and light pullover. The next room is larger, but there are many more people, all women and children. But it's too late to speak with them. The security officers have reached Roman and interrupt his work. They want him to speak with a refugee they have chosen. "I am also a prisoner" he tells to my colleague, who refuse and start talking with another refugee. J., he is 34 years old and he says he has been in 13 different prisons in Libya: "Some of us have been here for four years. Personally, I spent three years in this camp. We are in the worst situations. We haven't committed crimes, we are just looking for political asylum. At least tell us why! Nobody is informing us. What's going to happen to us? Even the Unhcr don't tell us anything. I lost the hope... I was 60 kg when I entered, now my weight is 48, imagine why .. "
Colonel Abu 'Ud follows the conversation with the help of the interpreter, he can't stand it any more: "Do you want to return to Eritrea?" he asks J. interrupting the interview. "I'd rather prefer to die – replied him – as every one here". The director became angry, he starts threaten: "If you want to go to Eritrea we will repatriate you in a single day". "They forbid us to speak with you," says J. to Roman. The director is furious. He screams "Tell them that they all will be returned". Then he comes close to Roman and orders: "Finished". Roman tries to protest, "We've finished" 'Abu 'Ud repeats, while two agents pull us towards the exit. Before to leave the courtyard, the Colonel speak loudly to the all refugees: "If you feel mistreated here, we'll organize your return immediately. You have already refused to return to your country, that's why you are here. But each of you is free to return to Eritrea! Who wants to go to Eritrea?". "None!", answers the crowd. "Have you seen! – the director says again to Roman - Now we've really finished. "
We go again in the colonel's office. With a very nervous voice, he tries to convince us of his commitment. The Eritrean embassy sent officials to identify the prisoners twice. But the refugees refused to meet them. They organized even a hunger strike. Understandable, I think, since they would be persecuted in their homeland. And Libya should know it, since on August 27th 2004, a deportation flight to Eritrea was hijacked in Sudan by its own passengers. But the concept of political asylum is not clear to the Libyan authorities. In their mind, they are just patrolling the European border. And if they catch Eritreans or Nigerians, there's no difference. And if Eritrean refugees refuse to go back to their Country, their detention will be without limit time. Unless they get the chance to be resettled in Europe by the Unhcr, or they manage to escape.
Haron is 36 years old. He left a wife and two children in Eritrea when he escaped in 2005, after 12 years of unpaid military service. He has spent two years in the prison of Misratah. Sweden has just accepted his request for resettlement. He will leave three days after our visit, on November 27th 2008, with a group of 26 Eritrean refugees from Misratah, including many women. The resettlement is the only card which Unhcr can play in Libya. The first 34 Eritrean women left Misratah in November 2007 and were resettled in Italy. For Rome it was the first resettlement of refugees since the crisis in Chile in 1973. But the operation was censured by the press office of the Italian Ministry of Interior, in order to avoid any possible controversy with the right wing xenophobe parties.
Since then, about 200 refugees were transferred from Misratah, in Italy (70), Romania (39), Sweden (27), Canada (17), Norway (9) and Switzerland (5). The person who gives me these figures is Osama Sadiq. He's the project coordinator of the International organization for peace care and relief (Iopcr). An important Libyan NGO, which pretend to be non-governmental even if it contains some former officials of the ministry of interior and security. Iopcr is so influent that the Unhcr have access to Misratah only under its coverage. Yes, in a country crossed every year by thousands of Eritreans, Sudaneses, Somalis and Ethiopians refugees, Unhcr has less power than an NGO. Actually Libya has never signed the UN convention on refugees, but allows Unhcr to work in his country, even if without an official agreement. Fighting for the release of refugees detained in Misratah could break such a weak diplomatic balance. That's why Unhcr prefers to work with a low profile, avoiding to criticise Libya.
Anyway the majority of the prisoners have no chance to be resettled by the Unhcr. For them, the only exit way is to escape from the centre. Koubros is one who did it. I meet him on the stairs of the church of San Francesco, near Dhahra, in Tripoli, after the Mass of Friday morning. A group of Eritreans in queue, are waiting Caritas office to open. He spent one year in Misratah. He was arrested in Tripoli during a raid in the district of Abu Selim. He managed to escape leaving the hospital where he was brought from the prison after he got sick. Once back in Tripoli, he was arrested again, and taken to the prison of Twaisha, close to the airport. Some friends collected 300 U.S. dollars and corrupted a policeman who let him go out. He sits near Tadrous, another Eritrean who has just been released from the prison of Surman. He was caught in the sea, on a boat sailing to Lampedusa, and then sentenced to 5 months of jail. During the detention he got the scab. We ask him to accompany us at Gurgi, a suburb of Tripoli, where the Eritreans live. He says it is too dangerous. Eritreans live hidden in the city. Our presence may alert the police and cause a raid. Yosief don't think so. He lives in a different area. We follow him.
The taxi stops on a dirty street near Shar'a Ahad 'Ashara, the eleventh road, at Gurgi. The apartment is owned by a Chadian family, who rents two small rooms on the first floor to seven Eritreans. We take away the shoes before to enter. The floor is covered with rugs and blankets. In this room they sleep in five. The television, connected to the large dish on the roof, show music video of Eritrean singers. It's a safe place, they say, because the entrance of the house passes through the Chadian family, which live here since many years. The refugees moved here recently, after the last raids in Shar'a 'Ashara. Now when they hear the police alarm they keep quite. They offer us chocolate, a tomato sauce with bread, 7-Up and pear juice.
We continue to talk about their experiences in Libyan prisons. Each one of them has been arrested at least once. And each one managed to escape thanks to the corruption. You just need to pay 200 to 500 dollars to a policeman, and they let you go. Money comes with Western Union through the Eritrean diaspora network of solidarity in Europe and America.
Robel also spent one year in Misratah. He shows us the asylum seeker certificate issued by Unhcr. It is valid till May 11th 2009. But the document don't make him feel safer: "A friend of mine was arrested the same, police ripped it under his eyes." During his detention, he wrote an appeal to the international community, with a group of six Eritreans students.
On the wall, near the poster of Jesus, I see a black and white picture of a child few years old. Somebody wrote aside it her name: Delina. I know her. She was playing this morning on the stairs of the church, with Tadrous. She also will risk her life at sea. "The important thing is to arrive in the international waters," explains Yosief. The Eritreans intermediaries (dallala) who organize the crossings, have different reputations. There are unscrupulous ones and others you can trust them. But the risk remains high. I can not stop thinking about it, on my return flight to Malta. Comfortably seated and quite bored, I browse the address book where I wrote the email addresses of the Eritreans we met in Tripoli. A month ago, an Ethiopian friend gave me the telephone number of a guy stranded in Tripoli after he failed to cross the sea. Gibril. I tried to call him many times, but his cell phone was always switched off. I keep hearing the echoes of the ununderstandable message in Arabic. I hope he is safe somewhere in Italy or Libya. And not... Good luck, Delina.
Libya: sign the petition against migrants detention camps
http://fortresseuro pe.blogspot. com/2008/ 11/libya- sign-petition- against-migrants .html
Reportage Libya: inside the immigrants detention centre of Misratah