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Libya Herald, 23.12.2012
Libya’s south: migrants’ journeys
By Beata Oleksy

Migrants at the Al-Weigh detention centre await deportation to Chad (Photo: Beata Oleksy)

Tripoli, 23 December

A migrants’ detention centre in Sebha was recently handed over to the Ministry of Interior by a local militia. According to Mohamed Madany, deputy head of the centre, it deports between 400 and 800 people back to their country of origin every month.

“This will be the main deportation centre in the south of Libya”, Khaled Al-Azhari, the facility’s director, said. “We have already done some reconstruction work to improve conditions. We receive people from other centres such as Obari, Jufra or Shatti on a regular basis”.

The majority of migrants come from Chad, Niger, Mali, the Gambia and Burkina Faso but there are also refugees from Somali, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, unofficial dictats exempt Somalis and Eritreans from deportation to their war-torn countries.

Miriam comes from Nigeria, and has been living in Libya for 13 years. She owned a small clothes’ shop in Sebha but she was arrested for not possessing valid documentation and her visa had expired some time ago. “I do not understand why we are being kept here, we are not criminals”, she said showing impatience and frustration.

Along with Miriam, in a large garage, about one hundred newly-arrived migrants are waiting to be registered. Many of them have been living in Libya for years, but there are some, like Amadu, a 22-year-old from Ivory Coast, who have just arrived.

“The easiest way to reach Libya is from Niger,” Amadu said. “Everyone knows how to find people who can get you through the border. I came some five months ago. I was working at the construction sites in Sebha”.

Libya, destination and transit

Libya’s vast land borders of nearly 4,600 kilometres make it exceptionally hard to stop smuggling and migration across its frontiers, and both have been serious issues for many years.

The country’s geographic location, relative economic prosperity and high demand for migrant labour meant that under Qaddafi Libya became both a major transit route and final destination for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, a problem that persists to this day.

Different sources have estimated that between one and three million irregular migrants lived in Libya before the 2011 conflict, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Maurizio Santicoli told the Libya Herald.

Thousands of foreign nationals fled Libya during the revolution, but the turbulent political and economic situation in their countries of origin forced many to return.

Santcoli said: “The smuggling routes are commonly known. We do not have our own research on that but the migrants who we provide assistance to in detention centres give us information.

“In Niger the cities of Agadez and Dirku are the hubs where migrants start their journey through the desert to the Libyan towns of Quatrun, Murzuk or Sebha, before travelling further north to Tripoli or Europe. The other route leads from Sudan through the southeastern Libyan border to Kufra”.

Who controls the South?

Murzuk, a town lying just southwest of Sebha, is home to a significant Tebu population. Local Council chief Mohamed Adem Lino explains that the Tebu have always been marginalized here, both during the Qaddafi era and also now. “Many people do not have real alternatives and that is why they are involved in human or goods smuggling”.

He said that people violate the law because they are hungry. “Both the smugglers and the migrants do not have a choice”.

Lino pointed that the government needs to invest in the south if he wants to avoid further penetration of the southern borders by the criminal groups including Al-Qaeda.“It’s a vicious cycle”, he says. “Poor people will work for anyone who pays well”

Quatrun is the last oasis in the deep south. After that, some 250 km to the border with Niger and its only desert. It is the first stop for many exhausted migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa traversing the desert borders.

Zakaria comes from Burkina Faso. He arrived to Libya in July 2012. He is an electrician. His co-travelers went further to Sebha but he decided to stay in Qatrun. “If there is a job, the car comes and takes us. We wait every day on the street for many hours”, he said. Zakaria does not want to go to Europe, but simply wants to earn some money and go back to school in his country.

Al-Weigh, one of the biggest military bases in the region, lies about 80 kilometres southwest of Quatrun. In the past, it was a strategic post for Qaddafi’s military because of its location 200 kilometres from the border with Chad and Niger.

Today it is under the command of the Tebu. “In a few hours, we are sending back home some 170 people; we wait for the green light from Tripoli”, said Sharafeddine Barka Azaiy, the base commander.

In a small prison in the middle of the base, dozens of men are waiting for the decision on what is going to happen to them. Ashraf Din is from Benin. He came to Libya three weeks ago. “Please look around, the conditions are awful. We have no access to a doctor, people are sick”, he complains.

Quasi Drisa, 22 years old, lost both his parents during the war in Ivory Cost. He traveled through a desert for four days in a small pick-up together with other 25 passengers. ”Could you tell me what is going to happen to us?” he asked pitiably. “We spent all our money to get here.”

According to Tebu leader Issa Abdel Majid Mansour, the southern Libyan borders with Niger, Chad and Sudan are controlled and protected by his militia.

He highlighted the importance of the Tebu in maintaining security in the south, saying that they are in control of swather of the south from Sebha that reach down to the border with Chad, Niger than the Kufra areas until the border with Sudan.

The Tebu commander of the Al-Weigh base, Sharafeddine, complained that his men are not receiving any help from the government in Tripoli.

He said: “During the revolution, controlling this base was of key strategic importance. We liberated it. Now we feel neglected. We do not have sufficient equipment, cars and weapons to protect the border. Even though we are part of national army, we receive no salary”.

Sharafeddine added that about six months ago his troops seized a carload of narcotics. “We informed Tripoli, a commission came, and they left. We still have some 25 kilograms of drugs here in the base and nobody cares about it ”.

Last Sunday evening, the General National Congress (GNC) passed a resolution declaring that the borders with Niger, Chad, Sudan and Algeria would be temporarily closed. GNC members passed the legislation designating the areas around Ghadamis, Ghat, Obari, Al-Shati, Sebha, Murzuq and Kufra as closed zones of military operations.

Quite how that will impact on the people of the south, and how they will react to it, remains to be seen.

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