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Libya: An industry of human trafficking and torture

23 Dec 2019

At the end of 2017, horrific images of migrants sold as mere commodities in Libya were travelling around the world. This sparked a global outcry and pushed many leaders, in Europe, in Africa, in Libya, to promise measures to protect refugees and migrants from abuse and slavery-like conditions.

However, two years later, nothing has really changed. Working to assist migrants and refugees in Libya since 2017, MSF teams have been witnessing the desperate situation of thousands of people, condemned to languish in detention centres or left to survive on their own outside, trapped in an endless cycle of violence.

In the Dahr-el-Jebel detention centre, between the towns of Zintan and Yefren, nearly 500 people, most from Eritrea and Somalia, remain locked up. © Aurelie Baumel / MSF

In the absence of any other alternative, people in need of protection who are seeking asylum in Europe are forced to rely on criminal networks to organise their passage. Sold and resold from one intermediary to another, they are particularly at risk of violence and trafficking throughout their journey, especially in Libya.

Once in Libya, each leg of the journey to the coast costs migrants and refugees. Some believe they have paid for a trip from Agadez to Tripoli, but find themselves taken to cities like Sheba, Shweyrif or Bani Walid. They are held captive there until they can pay an additional sum of money to be released or brought to the coast to attempt the Mediterranean Sea crossing. It’s such a lucrative business that convoys of migrants are even attacked by rival gangs, with their passengers captured for ransom. 

The conditions in the warehouses and other buildings where traffickers hold migrants and refugees are appalling. In some, hundreds of people are held in darkness, unable to move or eat properly for several months and subjected to the worst abuses to extort more money from them.

MSF does not have access to these prisons, but we treat some of those who managed to get out after paying their ransom, escaping or being released by jailers who no longer expect to get anything more from them. In Bani Walid, we are able to care for the survivors of the clandestine prisons still active in the area.

We have seen the scarred and broken bodies and heard stories of burning plastic poured on skin, daily beatings, and torture inflicted during a phone call to the victims' relatives to convince them to pay. This continued to happen on a large scale in 2019 in Libya.

Their medical conditions tell of the ordeals they have endured. Shocked, anaemic, polytraumatised, these victims of torture and extreme violence will need many months to recover. In 2019, more than 20 people in critical condition were cared for by MSF in Bani Walid and transferred to hospitals in Misrata and Tripoli. A total of 750 consultations were carried out on site.