An archive image of migrants waiting at the port in Tripoli, Libya | Photo: EPA
An archive image of migrants waiting at the port in Tripoli, Libya | Photo: EPA

In mid-February, round 300 migrants were intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard and transferred to a detention center at Sharah Zawiya, in the south of Libya's capital Tripoli. The center has been open for at least a year. Recently, it has been taken under the control of the UN-backed government and has become accessible to the IOM.

Is the center at Sharah Zawiya a hidden detention center, a transit center, or a center for inquiry? These are the questions that many Libyan observers are now asking themselves. As the IOM has recently gained access to the center, InfoMigrants set out to find out a bit more about what might be going on in the center itself.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) told InfoMigrants that many believe the center is a place of transit. Migrants are intercepted at sea and sent to this structure before undergoing an interview and then being sent to an official detention center.

"In theory," clarified the IOM, "migrants are not meant to stay there longer than 48 hours."

'I stayed there for more than three months'

However, several migrants who have been in contact with InfoMigrants claim to have spent much more than two days in the center. They also say they have never been interviewed, so it turns into more of a de facto detention center. "I stayed at least three months there last summer, before I finally managed to escape," said Ali, an 18-year-old from Guinea who is still living in Libya. "During the whole time I was there, they didn’t ask me one question."

Ali explained that when he arrived, the guards would strip the migrants. "They took everything we had, especially our telephones and our money." Ibrahim, another young man from Guinea, who is 17-years-old and also managed to escape the center last weekend, soon after being brought there, tells a similar story. "They forced me to give them my telephone and the €100 I had on me," he sighs.

Ali says that the Libyans demand a ransom from those wishing to leave the center. Sums can go up to around 3,000 dinars (or about €1,950), he says. "A man, an African, he brought telephones so that we could contact our families and we could ask them for money. Another man, an Arab, would then pick up the money that they demanded." Ali lists the frequent blows migrants suffered "for no reason" and the rationing of food within the center. "There would be a tiny bit of bread between three people each morning and a plate of pasta at about six in the evening."

According to InfoMigrants' research, the center itself opened about a year ago and was closed down temporarily for a few months at the end of 2019. It then re-opened last week to house the 300 intercepted migrants. Apparently a change in the management at the center was the cause of the temporary closure.

Have there been changes to the organization?

So did the change in the management result in a change in the way the center functions? Ali explains that he managed to escape sometime around October, after three months of detention. He was helped in his escape, he says, by the old guard at the center. "The Libyans who were running the center then told us we should leave because a new boss was arriving. The old boss and the new one didn't agree; things got so bad that their teams were shooting at each other as we all escaped."

The IOM says that it wasn’t authorized to enter the center until last week. "Previously, the place was run by the Ministry of the Interior, but recently, the DCIM (The department responsible for the fight against illegal migration) has retaken control," IOM told InfoMigrants.

Ibrahim says that he wasn't asked for money before being allowed to leave. The people who were intercepted at sea on February 18, were transferred, however, to the detention center at Zawia on Saturday where a ransom from 2,000 dinars or €1,300 was asked of every person who wanted to leave.

This kind of center is no exception in Libya, stated a source who wished to remain anonymous. "There are other similar centers in Libya and we don’t really know what is going on inside them. Whether you call it an inquiry center, a transit center or a detention center, it is basically the same thing. Migrants are still detained in an arbitrary manner and for an indefinite period." 

Translated from the French original by Emma Wallis

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