After three days at sea trying to reach Europe, Demba Dembele was intercepted by Libya’s EU-backed coastguard and returned to Tripoli – where, like dozens of other migrants, he got in a taxi and set off into the city, APA reports citing Reuters Tripoli.
For years, migrants sent back to Libya have been routinely transferred to government-affiliated detention centers notorious for squalid conditions and abuse.
Now, with several centers closing, some migrants are being allowed to walk free when they disembark, though they face an uncertain fate in a country shaken by renewed conflict over the past six months.
Dembele, a 28-year-old from Mali, had twice tried to get to Europe. After his first attempt failed, he spent three months in detention where he said he saw guards firing on migrants who tried to escape on two occasions.
“The first time, people forced the door to get out and they shot at them … they beat people,” he said. One Liberian man was shot dead. “It was done in front of me.”
Smugglers’ boats still leave frequently for Europe, but the proportion of migrants being intercepted and returned to Libya has risen over the past two years during an Italian-led, EU-backed push to cut off crossings that has drawn sharp criticism from rights groups.
This has coincided with a collapse in the networks that sent more than 600,000 across the central Mediterranean from 2014-2017, as armed groups seeking to clean up their image have moved away from the trade. Just 8,400 migrants have made the crossing to Italy so far this year, and 7,400 have been intercepted and returned, according to U.N. data.
But the shift has made Libya even more brutal for migrants who remain, exposing them to increased levels of abuse and extortion by smugglers struggling to make money in a shrunken market, researchers and aid workers say.
Since April, there has been sustained fighting in western Libya after eastern-based forces led by Khalifa Haftar made a bid to seize Tripoli.
A 49-year-old Nigerian on the same boat as Dembele, said he had been in Libya for four years, and was working in a cellophane factory in southern Tripoli before the recent fighting began. “It was just the war that made me decide to leave,” the Nigerian said.