In the heat of a Libyan afternoon, in a makeshift detention center outside the coastal town of Misrata, a young woman lay on the ground, suffering from severe dehydration.
Her friend Fatima, 21, cradled her head, and waited for the ambulance that the guards said they’d called. The detention center’s lone doctor made a brief inspection. Two hours later, the ambulance still hadn’t come.
It would be easy to lament the fate of 18-year-old Zahra, lying sickened in the midday sun hundreds of miles from home, except for this: She’s alive. Hundreds of others who share her story are dead, drowned in the Mediterranean, where their overcrowded boat foundered Sunday as it made its way toward Italy and, its passengers had hoped, a better life in Europe.
Zahra and Fatima each shelled out $1,500 to traffickers for a grueling three-month journey that took them from their homes in Mogadishu, Somalia, across Sudan and Libya’s eastern desert before they were caught near here two months ago. Now their future is uncertain.
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This squalid camp is the other side of what’s unfolding as a global refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. More people are on the move now – fleeing wars in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan – than at any other time since World War II, the United Nations refugee agency says. The refugees are straining the economies of the countries to which they’ve fled – Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey, for example – where few can find work, and they’re boarding boats all along the Mediterranean coast in often ill-fated leaps toward the more robust economies of Europe.
In the past week alone, more than 1,000 have drowned, including 850 on the boat that sank Sunday when its captain accidentally crashed into a nearby cargo vessel. The boat had departed Tripoli on Saturday, the 28 survivors told the U.N. refugee agency. So far this year, according to the United Nations, more than 36,000 migrants have arrived by boat in Europe.
What Europe can do to ease the refugee crisis is the topic in that continent’s capitals, but whatever decisions are made there are likely to have little impact here. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has no international staff in the country – the U.N. closed its Libya mission months ago, as militia fighting raged – and it won’t send anyone here under the current security conditions, the U.N.’s refugee chief, António Guterres, told McClatchy this week.
Libya has two warring governments, one in Tripoli and one in Tobruk, and neither controls much. So the response to the thousands of refugees who come here is left to an underfunded coast guard and the overwhelmed officials who run this detention center under the auspices of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration.
The evening before, guards said they’d sped an Eritrean woman in labor to a private clinic and paid for her care themselves. With little government support, the detention center relies on private donations and charities to house the migrants. The woman and her newborn now are recuperating in a parking lot trailer before they’ll be moved back to their dank and overcrowded jail.
“Nobody has died so far,” said the center’s security chief, Salah al Budabus, gesturing to Zahra. “The problem is if we take them to the hospital in our personal cars, they probably won’t be admitted.”
The detained men take turns sitting up and sleeping in a small, dark and airless room. The 100 or so women and children sit and lie on dirty mattresses in the narrow corridor. There are only four toilets for the hundreds of people housed on the ground floor.
Abdul Hakim, a 25-year-old computer worker from Mogadishu, was apprehended at sea after forking out $600 for a ride to Europe on a large rubber dinghy. “We are running away from soldiers at home straight to other soldiers here,” he said in fluent English.
The prisoners here are primarily Eritreans and Somalis, but there also are Ethiopians, Bangladeshis, Egyptians and many from West African nations – Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Gambia and Senegal.
The detainees haven’t seen anyone from their embassies. “How can we see our embassy when we don’t have a government?” asked Hamda, a 22-year old Somali.
Regional trafficking networks and the hazardous journey for migrants through Libya are not new. The late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi talked about them during a June 2009 visit to Italy. “Millions of people are attracted by Europe, and are trying to get here,” he said.
But in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that toppled Gadhafi, with Libya consumed by competing powers and militias, there’s been little funding for training, policing of borders, detention centers or stopping criminal networks that smuggle people toward Europe.
Migrants who enter Libya through the desert and trafficking hubs of Kufra and Sebha often find themselves the victims of kidnapping, forced labor and extortion before they reach the coast and take boats to Europe.
“We find it difficult to justify that it is legitimate to assist people like Syrian refugees in a refugee camp in Lebanon, but ignore them while they are drowning at sea,” said Hernan del Valle, the humanitarian adviser to the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which plans to begin on May 1 dispatching volunteer doctors to a search and rescue boat plying the Mediterranean.
In Misrata’s port, the Libyan coast guard employs two patrol boats to cruise along nearly 375 miles of coast looking for vessels carrying migrants, from Khoms, next to the historic ruins of Leptis Magna, to Brega in Libya’s central oil crescent.
Tawfeek al Skare, a coast guard commander in Misrata, thinks most migrant boats leave from Zuwara in Libya’s northwest, as well as areas around the coastal towns of Sabratha, Qarabouli, Khoms and Zliten. The coast guard caught three boats last week, he said, two of which had left Khoms with over 100 people on each.
“Before the revolution, the government was able to crack down on the traffickers themselves,” he said. But most of Libya’s naval boats were destroyed during the 2011 fighting, so there’s little that can be done to counter the smuggling.
“Every year there are more boats than the last,” he said, referring to smugglers, “and no one is stopping them now.”