Libya: Vulnerable Migrants Demand Passage to Safety

On the road to Libya, rape, murder and kidnappings are so common that it is hard to find anyone who does not have a story to tell about them. Even before this trauma, the same people fled brutal wars, genocide, gang violence, and abject poverty. They left home because they wanted to live.

Libya is a step closer to reaching Europe, and many survivors of the journey are often still hopeful they will make it all the way.

In the meantime, they suffer detentions, homelessness, war and poverty. The fear, migrants tell us, is constant.

Only last week, more than 50 detained travelers were killed and at least 130 were injured when an airstrike hit a detention center. In the wake of the attack, hundreds of survivors protested inside the walls of the closed compound where they were detained, demanding evacuation to safer countries as U.N. authorities planned to relocate 60 people to another facility.

On Tuesday, hundreds of migrants were still sleeping in the yard of the bombed-out detention center, and they demanded release.

"The police asked what we want," said one teenager who had been detained in Tripoli for two years after trying to take a smuggler's boat across the Mediterranean Sea. "We said, 'Leave us alone. We want to go out.'"

A march

"The police said, 'Fine, we won't stop you,'" the young man told us over the phone as he walked down the street with hundreds of other migrants an hour later, many carrying their belongings in plastic garbage bags.

Two men holding a plain white banner made with sticks and a sheet led the way.

Tripoli authorities said they were considering releasing detainees last week amid calls for evacuations from human rights organizations. But neither the local government nor international organizations have expressed concrete ideas about where the migrants could or should go.

But the migrants themselves are clear: They are not protesting detention, bad conditions or bad treatment, even though they complain of all three.

They are begging, asking and demanding passage to countries where they might be safe.

"We need to get out of this country," the young man told us on the phone while still detained Monday, speaking secretly lest he get caught. "Maybe they will attack again."

The crowd marched for hours in the hot sun with a police escort driving alongside. They said they were heading to the offices of organizations responsible for migrant travel, like the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.

Homeless migrants

Several miles away, but still within earshot of the bombing ever present in the now over three-month-old war, about 100 other travelers were also sleeping outside over the weekend.

In April, we met the same families in an urban schoolhouse, after they fled war in the suburbs. Most of the families had been running for years, from genocide in Darfur, violent displacement camps, desert kidnappers and now this war, which has displaced 100,000 people.

Alaweiah, a mother of three, described her journey to Tripoli and multiple rapes that ended one pregnancy, and started another.  Her husband left her after her rapist’s baby was conceived, but she doesn’t know if he meant to abandon her, or if he was kidnapped after he walked away.

But on Friday, these troubles seemed as far away to Alaweiah as her burnt home in Sudan.  She and the other families had been kicked out of the schoolhouse, banished from camping outside the UNHCR, and were living in the parking lot of a government building.

Surviving under an awning on piecemeal handouts was all she had time to bear.

"We have food today because it is Friday, and the neighbors brought it," she told us. "But we don't have enough water to drink."
Choice?

Among the detained and displaced migrants in Libya are some people characterized by politicians and in the news as “economic migrants.”  They are people that didn’t flee violence and are not eligible for asylum under international refugee laws.

The implication is that they are traveling by choice, for personal gain.

In a detention center outside of the Tripoli city, Nigerian women tell us they never felt like there was a choice.  With no income and no jobs, they saw migration as their only hope for supporting their families.

Mercy was in her early 20s when she left Benin, Nigeria, a city perhaps best known for attracting  human trafficking victims.  Women and girls are promised a future in exchange for "sponsorship," a system in which their way is paid to Europe, but if they make it alive, they are required to pay back tens of thousands of dollars.

For many young women like Mercy, the contract is made with fingernails and bits of hair by local juju priests.  Whether you believe it or not, the contract is binding because the victims believe it.  If they don't pay the sponsor, the consequences will be dire.

"Either you will die, or you will be mad or you will be useless and can never do anything," Mercy explained. "You will be crazy."

Like thousands of others detained in Libya, Mercy is still hoping to find a way to Europe, despite closing seaports and growing anti-migration sentiment in the Western World. Going back is not an option, she said, so she is prepared to wait.

"There is no road to Italy right now," she said. "But if we stay and look for money, we will go."

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