The doors of the detention center were bolted shut. Hundreds of migrants were locked inside, with as many as 20 crammed into each cell. Scrawny and barefoot, the men peered through the small, square openings in the metal doors as the stench of urine and body odor hung in the stale air.“I’ve eaten only a piece of bread today,” an Algerian man whispered. “I beg you, can you help me?”
Above: A group of migrants stand in front of the showers at the Tajora detention center in Tripoli on May 23. Libya is no longer just a crossing point for migrants seeking jobs and opportunity in Europe. It is now home to a thriving trade in humans, where misery piles upon the desperate at every stage of their way.
Yet for these migrants, mostly Africans fleeing poverty, war or persecution, the worst part of their experience in Libya began before they reached this crowded facility. Many were bought and sold by smugglers who operate freely in the lawless areas of the country.
“They flogged me, they slapped me, they beat me while I was on the phone with my mother so she could hear me cry,” said Ishmael Konte, a 25-year-old from Sierra Leone, recounting his time in southern Libya.
Libya, the biggest jumping-off point for migrants trying to reach Europe, is now home to a thriving trade in humans. Unable to pay exorbitant smuggling fees or swindled by traffickers, some of the world’s most desperate people are being held as slaves, tortured or forced into prostitution.
Their deteriorating plight raises questions about European Union agreements to stem the flow of migrants. Under these deals, Libya was promised more than $225 million to enforce stricter border controls and maintain migrant assistance centers that respect “international humanitarian standards.” Last week, Libya’s Western-backed government asked European leaders in Brussels for more money to cope with the crisis.
But instead of getting better treatment, migrants found at sea are being returned to Libya to face more exploitation and violence.
“They are not treated like humans. They are treated like merchandise.”
—Ahmed Tabawi Wardako, Libyan tribal leader
Meanwhile, the number of migrants departing from Libya is surging, with more than 70,000 arriving in Italy so far this year, a 28 percent increase over the same period last year. More than 2,000 have drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and the summer peak season for sea crossings is just starting.
To report this article, The Washington Post visited two main government-run detention centers in Tripoli, as well as a third in the coastal city of Zawiyah that is controlled by a militia allegedly involved in human trafficking, according to U.N. investigators. Although the migrants’ accounts corroborate recent reports by human rights groups and aid agencies, they also reveal how much more systematic and clandestine the trade in migrants has become.
“They are not treated like humans,” said Ahmed Tabawi Wardako, a Libyan tribal leader and community activist in the southern city of Sabha. “They are treated like merchandise.”
E.U. officials are working with international organizations and the Libyan government to address the concerns, spokeswoman Catherine Ray said. “We are aware of the unacceptable conditions in which some migrants are treated, in detention or reception centers in Libya,” she said. “And we do not turn a blind eye to it.”
For decades, African migrants flocked to this oil-producing country in search of work. Reports of abuse, including slavery-like conditions, by Libyan employers abounded. But the situation worsened after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the toppling of dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
Awash with weapons, the state collapsed. In the chaos, borders and coastlines were left unpatrolled, and crime and trafficking by well-armed militias along migrant routes grew.
Now, human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar business involving countless militias and influential tribes, activists and security officials say. The Western-backed government exerts little authority outside the capital, Tripoli, and infighting is rampant within some of its ministries. It competes with two other governments, and none has real authority in the southern part of the country, where most migrants are smuggled through.
“No one even thinks about making arrests in the south,” Wardako said. “The human traffickers have lots of money. They buy off people, including the police and local officials.”
In March, Mack Williams left his home in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital of Abidjan. He was 29 and unemployed. With money borrowed from relatives, he traveled several days and hundreds of miles by bus to the smuggling town of Agadez in central Niger, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
A recruiter introduced him to a “connection man,” one of the many middlemen on the migrant pipeline to Europe.
For about $600, Williams was transported across the border, through Sabha and the town of Bani Walid, and then to Tripoli. At each stop, another connection man was expected to guide him along — if he survived.
“It’s the road of death,” Williams said, referring to the 1,400-mile stretch between Agadez and Sabha, typically a week-long drive through intense desert heat.
The deaths of migrants along the land route seldom draw much attention. In a rare instance, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in June that 44 migrants, including five children, died of thirst when their vehicle broke down in the Saharan desert. A few weeks later, 51 more were presumed dead after smugglers abandoned them, the agency said.
Other migrants said that when someone fell off a truck, the drivers often left them behind to die in the desert.
Williams, who is tall and slender, was packed into a Toyota pickup truck with two dozen other migrants, “stuck like a piece of fish in the back,” he recalled. Food and water were in short supply. Breaks were infrequent. If the migrants took too long to urinate on the side of the road, the driver and his companion would beat them with a stick and prod them like cattle back into the truck.
“They flogged me, they slapped me, they beat me while I was on the phone with my mother so she could hear me cry.”
—Ishmael Konte, 25, of Sierra Leone, recounting his time in Libya
Three days into the journey, as they neared the Libyan border, the traffickers spotted a convoy of troops from Niger and were worried about being caught. They veered off the road and ordered the migrants to get out of the truck and get down — and then sped away.
“They left us in the desert with no water or food,” Williams said.
Two days later, as some of the migrants approached death, another Toyota pickup arrived with a different group of traffickers. None had the same name or contact information Williams was given in Agadez. He understood what had happened.
“If your connection man doesn’t come, it means you’ve been sold,” he said. “Anyone can sell you to another group.”
Inmates are given only a six-inch loaf of bread for lunch at the al-Nasr detention center for migrants on May 24 in Zawiyah. Dinner is a plate of macaroni. Migrants sleep and eat on the dirty floors at the center.
The connection house
When Ishmael Konte arrived in Sabha, nearly 500 miles south of Tripoli, the traffickers drove directly to a warehouse and sold him to a Libyan.
It was one of numerous “connection houses” where migrants wait while they are moved through the smuggling pipeline.
Konte and the 20 other migrants in the truck with him were put in a tiny cell, where guards — mostly from Niger — beat them with pipes and electric cables for the slightest infraction. Every two days, they were given a bowl of gruel. Other food had to be bought from the guards, Konte said, but most of the migrants had no money.
“We had to drink the water in the toilet,” said Alassana Bah, 34, a soft-voiced teacher from Gambia who lost his left arm in an accident years ago. “Every day, they beat me on the soles of my feet.”
The men were incarcerated for different reasons. Some still owed money for their journey, others had traveled on credit and were now the property of the smugglers. Most, like Konte, said they had paid in full but were tricked by their drivers and sold to the prison’s Libyan owner for as little as $50.
Migrants in Libya
Migrant deaths since 2014
Major migration routes
Internally displaced people camps
Source: Missing Migrants Project
TIM MEKO/THE WASHINGTON POST
Migrants in Libya
Major migration routes
Migrant deaths since 2014
Internally displaced people camps in Libya
Source: Missing Migrants Project
TIM MEKO/THE WASHINGTON POST
Every morning, the guards would force the migrants to call their relatives back home.
Four days after he arrived, Konte called his mother. As he spoke, a guard whipped him with a thick cable. She could hear his cries.
“People have caught me,” he recalled telling her. “They want $400.”
“Where can I get such money?” she replied. Konte could hear her weeping.
“You have to,” he said. “These people will kill me.”
The threat of death was real. Osama Quaitta, 28, a slim, muscular man from Mali, spent three months in another prison in Sabha. Several migrants in his cell died, he said, after beatings or from poor health and a lack of food.
“All the time, they killed people,” he said.
“We had to drink the water in the toilet. Every day, they beat me on the soles of my feet.”
—Alassana Bah, 34, of Gambia
It took Konte’s mother a month to raise the money. She wired it to an associate of the traffickers in Agadez, and Konte was released. For the next few weeks, he worked in Sabha to earn enough to pay for his trip to Tripoli.
Traffickers drove Mohamed Jalloh and 26 others from village to village on the way to Tripoli. Jalloh, a 25-year-old from Guinea, said the group he was in was forced to work on farms and houses for several weeks at a time without pay.
“They were renting us out,” Jalloh said, shaking his head.
Beauty Oriri, 25, was forced to drink her urine after she ran out of water in the desert. Then she was “sold” to a connection house in Tripoli.
What Oriri saw there terrified her.
Mothers tend to their children in the women's section of the Tadamon detention center on May 19.
“They are forcing girls to have sex with men against their will,” the Nigerian hairdresser said. “If you don’t do it, they can kill you. They can lock you up for days. If you don’t do it, you will not eat.”
There are dozens of connection houses in Tripoli, some windowless to prevent detection, security officials say. In most cases, the government “doesn’t know anything about them,” said Capt. Wajdi Muntassar, a police officer who runs a detention center. Migrant boys taken to the houses are forced to sell drugs, he added, and girls are forced into prostitution.
Oriri said the connection men told her she would be forced into prostitution if she couldn’t pay $500. She frantically called her family and friends in Nigeria. Eight days later, the smugglers had the money and she was released, she said.
Most of the other migrant girls and women who traveled with her couldn’t afford to pay. So they had no choice, Oriri said. They received a small cut of what the customers paid, and it would take months to afford the boat fare to Italy.
Migrants are held in an empty cell at the al-Nasr detention center. Officials at the center removed the mattresses in the cell as a punishment for a fight that occurred there.
The detention center
The Libyan coast guard and local fishermen have stopped more than 10,000 migrants this year and sent them back to Libya, according to IOM data. Most have ended up in one of Libya’s 29 official detention centers, which international aid and medical charities visit.
All are woefully underfunded, in part because of militia and government rivalries. Funding has been frozen and bills to feed migrants haven’t been paid in months, Muntassar and two other officials said.
Abdulrazag Shneeti, a spokesman for the government’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration, did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
The Zawiyah facility — known as the al-Nasr detention center — was set up by the al-Nasr Brigade, a militia involved in oil and human smuggling that has links to the coast guard, U.N. investigators said in a report released in June. Christine Petre, an IOM spokeswoman, said the facility is now being run by the Western-backed government, but migrants and coast guard members said the militia and its tribesmen are still in charge.
Migrants sleep and eat on the dirty floors. Lunch is a six-inch loaf of bread. Dinner is a plate of macaroni.
On a recent day, the mattresses had been taken away from a group in a cell as “punishment” for fighting, said Fathi al-Far, the center’s director. Last year, he said, four migrants were killed and a guard was injured in clashes.
Two migrants died of treatable problems in the past two years, Far said. He has been awaiting a water purifier for months. Nearby, an Algerian migrant lay on the floor against a wall, clutching his stomach and writhing in pain. But there was no doctor to help him.
Guards are quick to give beatings, several migrants said.
“It happens,” Far said.
In their report, U.N. investigators described Far as a former army colonel and said that the center is used to sell migrants to other smugglers.
Far acknowledged that smugglers come to the center to take migrants but said he is unable to stop them. Guards or militia members call the migrants’ families to extort cash — if they pay, the migrant is released and put back on a boat to Europe.
“The guards can do anything,” Far said. “They have the keys to the cells.”
An inmate walks in the main cell of the Tadamon detention center on May 19.