TRIPOLI, Libya — Ahmed Mostafa and his friends paid thousands of dollars among them to get to Libya recently, traveling with gangs of smugglers through Western Africa. It was to be their escape from the sprawling slums of Ghana’s capital city, Accra.
Mostafa had heard rumors of arbitrary arrests and Libyan lynch mobs during the war last year in which longtime Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi was ousted and killed. But he was counting on luck: “It was not something I really thought about,” he said. “I thought I would come and secure some work. Then send some money to my family.”
Instead, he and his 10 friends wound up in a government-run prison, Twoshi Detention Center, sleeping on small foam mattresses, dozens to a room. A militia had spied them two weeks earlier walking along a dusty road in the country’s north and detained them. They remain in the prison, uncharged and without legal representation.
In Libya, illegal migration is once again picking up, conducted through two primary trafficking corridors in the east and west of the country. A stream of Africans — Somalis, Eritreans, Nigerians, Sudanese, Malians — dreaming of a new life have made the perilous trip to Libya. But as turmoil continues to reign through much of the country, many of these migrants are being rounded up and detained, in some cases, to be exploited as forced laborers.
“The going rate for a migrant is anywhere from 260 to 800 Libyan dinars,” or about $210 to $645, said Jeremy Haslam, chief of the Libya mission for the International Organization for Migration. “One of the problems is that many detention facilities are not currently under state control, instead administered by local councils and even private parties. The latter may involve organized crime, running human trafficking operations — modern-day slavery.”
At some detention facilities, staff members lease out black African detainees to employers, who make a contribution to the jails to help cover costs. Other migrants are said to be sold outright to employers.
“In some circumstances, it can appear like a legitimate transaction but is essentially exploitative,” Haslam said. “And it’s widespread.”
Migrants often “work off” the debt of their sale, Haslam said, and have no chance to negotiate hours or rates or the kind of work they do.
“With no status in the country, the cycle can continue indefinitely, with the migrant re-traded once the employer no longer needs their services,” he said.
Libya’s borders have long been haunted by smuggling rings that ferry drugs, weapons and migrants through an intricate web of clandestine trading routes. The country’s relative wealth, gleaned mainly from its oil industry — providing an annual per capita income of $12,000, the highest in Africa — has ensured its place as a destination for illegal immigrants.
Cleaner. Builder. Farmhand. Prostitute. Domestic servant. Libya’s migrant workers, at least 1.5 million strong at the outbreak of last year’s warfare, were all of these things, and the country depended heavily on them. Yet they were always viewed as outsiders, necessary for filling jobs that Libyans would not do.
Some, meanwhile, were reviled as drug dealers and participants in a dark underworld of gang violence.
In the end, they stood as exemplars of how Kadafi’s focus on sub-Saharan Africa — after numerous scuttled attempts to fit into the Middle East and North Africa — came at the expense of his own people. And resentment grew.
Libya has no legislative framework to protect migrants from abuse and exploitation. In its 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, theU.S. State Departmentranked Libya in the bottom tier, reserved for countries that “do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts” to eliminate human trafficking.
Racially motivated and xenophobic attacks, which occurred frequently before the insurgency, increased vastly over the last year as the country descended into chaos. Rumors swirled throughout Libya — wildly embellished, according to Amnesty International — that Kadafi was flying in mercenaries en masse, with terrifying consequences for the country’s black migrant workers.
Recently released undated video shows black Africans held in a cage, surrounded by a mob. They sit, feet tied and hands bound behind their backs. All have the green former Libyan flag stuffed into their mouths. Men shout “dogs” and “God is great” and force them to gnaw on the flags.
The slide of a pistol is pulled back and a gunshot rings out. The men stand up and hop, like an act from a demented circus, in front of their tormentors. Another shot rings out. The video cuts.
“I want to tell the guards that I am not a mercenary,” said Mostafa, standing in a courtyard outside his cell. “But I cannot speak Arabic. I cannot express myself to them.”
Nearby, other migrants set to weeding a patch of grass, under the eyes of prison guards.
No one really knows how many detention centers — increasingly notorious for human rights abuses, including torture and rape of inmates — are operating in Libya or how many people are being held.
The United Nations estimates that at least 7,000 people are locked up — including migrants, Kadafi loyalists and criminals — and has advocated for the issuance of temporary documentation to illegal migrants to offer some protection.
According to Haslam, about 90% of illegal migrants have no valid identification, which complicates the process of repatriation, prolongs their detention and leaves them vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and exploitation.
“They should give them all visas,” said Mohammed Khoja, who supervises a team of four Nigerian street cleaners who are illegal immigrants. “We need them.”
His workers sift through the accumulated junk in their patch of the city long into the night. It chokes the edges of streets and comes in waves down alleyways. Three years now they have toiled, his four workers, amid Tripoli’s waste.
Wraith-like and filthy, they flit between stalls and parked cars, clutching brooms. Emaciated forms stooped in the night. A deathly odor — rotten fruit, chicken feces and slaughtered animals — clogs the air.
Some people see the four of them as no better than the trash they collect or the pavement they clean, says one of the men, Abdallah.
They bought cheap portable CD players to block out the abuse. Bob Marley and Rihanna accompany them long into the night, when family and friends back inNigeria’s slums drift into their thoughts.
They were smuggled into Libya. They say the trip through Western Africa was simple brutality as they were juggled between ruthless gangs of traffickers and corrupt, profiteering officials, mostly from Chad and Libya.
“Everything you can imagine happened. Rape. Theft. Beatings,” Abdallah said.
Clashes in the remote southern town of Kufra, a staging post for traffickers, have escalated over the last few months. Rumors quickly spread that Chadian mercenaries were seeking to destabilize Libya. In fact, rival gangs of traffickers, many of them Libyan nationals, were battling for control over migration routes.
The rumors fed into a cycle of discrimination in which anyone with black skin was subject to arrest and imprisonment.
He is unsure what will happen to him. But he knows his dream of a world outside Ghana’s slums is over.
“I want to tell my family to come and rescue me,” he says. “I want to go home.”
Johnson is a special correspondent.