The Zintan detention center in Libya, in March, 2019. Photo: DR
The Zintan detention center in Libya, in March, 2019. Photo: DR

In Libya, traffickers allegedly make migrants pay for a place in a closed detention center. They claim this is a fast-track method for the migrants to be evacuated and resettled in Europe. This information is false, but several hundred people have already fallen victim to the scam.

Hundreds of migrants have paid traffickers hundreds of dollars to be locked up in Libya’s notorious detention centers -- a phenomenon that started this summer, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. The UNHCR learned of the scam after being contacted by several of its victims. According to the UNHCR, the migrants are made to pay between $200 and $500 for a place in a detention center, with the traffickers promising them that once they are in detention, they will have better access to the UNHCR and therefore be resettled in Europe faster.

“The traffickers promise them this once they pay up, convincing them that the UNHCR will work as a type of travel agency to Europe. Sometimes they even tell them that the UNHCR has already scheduled a meeting with them,” Vincent Cochetel, a UNHCR official for the central Mediterranean, tells InfoMigrants.

In reality, however, all the migrants get for their money is to be locked up in what international NGOs often denounce as inhuman conditions (lack of food, water and medicine in extremely poor hygiene conditions, risk of torture and degrading treatment). According to Cochetel, the fact that the traffickers have been successful in selling the scam is a sure-fire sign that the general living conditions in Libya have deteriorated even further. If people are willing to believe in the traffickers’ absurd promise and are prepared to pay for a place in a detention center, they must feel as if they are in much more danger by staying out of them, he says.

‘People are desperate’

“Many parts of Tripoli are hit by airstrikes and power and water cuts. People find themselves at a dead end; they don’t have enough money to attempt a sea crossing, or they don’t want to because it is winter and the water is much colder and the sea is more agitated. They are desperate and think that they will become more visible [to the UNHCR] if they’re inside these centers,” Cochetel explains.

People of certain nationalities also fear being abducted. Cochetel says that in Libya, the less a person speaks Arabic and the darker his or her skin is, the more the person is at risk of being abducted.   

Migrants from Sudan and Eritrea are particularly targeted for abductions. According to a persistent – but completely false – rumor, people of these nationalities are believed to have access to more money than other migrants via their diaspora.

When the UNHCR closes its overcrowded Gathering and Departure Facility (GDP) in Tripoli at the end of this year, migrants are likely to feel even more insecure. To compensate for the closure of the facility, the UN agency has said that it will strengthen its assistance programs in urban areas. Cochetel says that this might be done in the form of giving migrants a certain amount of money so that they can rent a sublease apartment. But since April this year, the southern part of the capital has been the scene of a full-fledged armed conflict.

In July, 2019, the Tajoura detention center was the target of an airstrike that killed 44 people and left 130 others injured.

‘People don’t need to be in detention to be registered’

For the migrants who have paid for a place in one of the detention centers, there are no means of recourse. Especially in a country “where the system of official detentions are part of the traffickers’ ‘business model’,” Cochetel says.

The UNHCR admits that they “can do little but warn people that they don’t need to be in detention in order for them to be registered”. “We try to pass the message on through different communities. But sometimes, what we say has less impact than the traffickers’ rhetoric,” he says.

Faced with this new danger for migrants, the UNHCR is trying to provide information about the scam in more languages. “We also have to balance our resettlement efforts more so that there’s not this perception that we resettle people in detention centers faster than those who are in urban areas.”

Since November, 2017, the UNHCR has an evacuation system in place for migrants who are deemed likely to be offered international protection by a European country. To qualify for the program, however, the migrants must first be registered by the agency as refugees. These registrations are either done in the official detention centers, which are run by the Libyan Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), or in the UNHCR’s Tripoli office.

The evacuated migrants are then sent to either Niger or Rwanda while they wait for resettlement in their new host country. But Europe and Canada only accept a fraction of the registered refugees: Since November, 2017, only 4,600 migrants of the 50,000 registered by the UNHCR in Libya have been resettled.

•••• ➤ Also read: UN Speical Envoy calls on EU states to offer more resettlement places for 2020


More articles