Whenever there is news of a boat carrying undocumented migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea or those onboard being sent back to Libyan ports, it affects many countries, like Egypt, Sudan, and Syria.
This journey comes at a high price, with mothers selling their jewelry and fathers offering what little livestock they have left.
Like the hopes of migrant families coming together for a better life, they now face shared fears and suffer the painful sorrow of losing their children. Some have tragically drowned at sea, while others have mysteriously vanished in prison without any known whereabouts.
Asharq Al-Awsat has investigated what has happened to hundreds of migrants who have gone missing or been imprisoned in Libya by gathering information from families who shared their testimonies and from lists obtained from prisons, detention centers, and undisclosed locations.
Additionally, stories of individuals who have been released and others who have tried multiple times but failed to escape by sea to Europe have been documented.
Leaked lists from Libyan prisons and detention centers contain the names of migrants and underage children from Egypt and various African countries.
These individuals are held in official prisons as well as in accommodation centers overseen by the unauthorized migration agency affiliated with the temporary National Unity government in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Local human traffickers control the fate of detainees in unofficial accommodation centers and secret facilities, which are also affiliated with militias and organized crime groups.
Each prisoner’s freedom is contingent upon their family paying a ransom for their release, saving them from the torment that includes starvation, branding with fire, and being sold to others, according to a report by the National Committee for Human Rights in Libya.
Through the help of a security official from the Rabiana security directorate in Libya, a Chadian migrant named A.S shared his harrowing experience.
He revealed that he, along with 40 other migrants, including many children and minors, were held captive by a human trafficking gang for more than six months in a dimly lit warehouse near Rabiana.
A.S bravely disclosed to Asharq Al-Awsat that they endured starvation, sexual assault, branding with fire, and were even filmed to blackmail their families for money.
Interestingly, the Chadian migrant stated that a gang, consisting of three individuals, released over 20 detainees after receiving $5,000 from each hostage’s family.
In June 2022, the remains of 20 Chadian and Libyan individuals were discovered in the Libyan desert near the town of Al-Kufra, which lies on the border between the two countries.
It is important to mention that the “Missing Migrants Project,” operated by the International Organization for Migration, has recorded more than 5,600 cases of people dying or going missing while crossing the Sahara Desert since 2014.
Tarek Lamloum, the director of “Baladi Foundation for Human Rights,” considered the treatment of detained migrants in Libya as a form of slavery, as he explained in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat.
Lamloum regarded the sexual violations and forced labor imposed on migrants in exchange for necessities like food, water, and access to sanitary facilities as criminal.
However, those who were admitted to institutions under the supervision of official immigration authorities have a relatively better situation than those held in secret facilities controlled by armed groups.
Libya’s immigration department stated that the large number of migrants being detained in prisons and accommodation centers compels them to increase efforts for “voluntary return” to their home countries or another host nation.
However, the number of migrants entering Libya and being crowded into its prisons continues to be higher.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a report published on October 11, 2022, argued that migrants are forced into voluntary return to escape arbitrary detention, threats of torture, mistreatment, sexual violence, as well as enforced disappearance and extortion.
One of those who escaped the darkness of prison, according to the evacuation operations supervised by the International Organization for Migration and the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli, is Amr Atef Mohammed.
Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed Mohammed, aged 15, in the city of Mashtoul El Souq in the Sharqia Governorate in Egypt's Delta region after his return in December 2022, having survived long imprisonment in Libya.
Mohammed, like others, went to Libya with the intention of escaping to Europe.
“The Libyan Coast Guard caught us and returned us to the Ain Zara shelter on Abu Salim Street,” recalled Mohammed.
According to a report released by the International Organization for Human Rights in mid-April 2023, there are approximately 695,000 irregular migrants in 100 Libyan municipalities, representing more than 42 nationalities.
People living in coastal cities in Libya are used to seeing waves bring ashore bodies of migrants who drowned while trying to reach Europe.
It has become so common that residents of the coastal Libyan city of Qasr al-Akhiyar had to leave their homes and farms last summer because of the strong smell coming from the bodies scattered on the beach.
The Libyan Red Crescent has always rushed teams to retrieve the bodies of migrants after local and judicial authorities are notified.
Toufik Al-Shakri, the Media and Communication Officer at the humanitarian movement, informed Asharq Al-Awsat about the efforts of relief teams in response to the increasing number of capsized migrant boats and how they are dealing with this phenomenon.
According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 2,300 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of 2022 while attempting to cross on overcrowded and dilapidated boats departing from North Africa, particularly from Libya and Tunisia.
Italian police stated that the highest rate of migration flow in 2022 came from Libya, with over 53,000 irregular migrants, followed by Tunisia with more than 32,000 migrants.
Families who have lost loved ones in Libya and are waiting for their return are deeply frightened by the tragedies that happen to migrant groups there.
One such tragedy occurred on the beach of Sabratha in western Libya, where a deadly dispute among human traffickers resulted in shots being fired at a boat carrying many migrants.
This horrific crime, which occurred on October 10, claimed the lives of 15 migrants, with 11 of them being found burnt.
Osama Abdel Tawab believes that his brother, Adham, was among the victims of this boat.
Adham had arrived in Libya in August 2022, hoping to find a way to migrate to Europe, but his family lost contact with him after his last conversation with his brother in Italy.
Sabratha serves as a major hub for non-regular migrants seeking to reach Europe, alongside other coastal cities in both the western and eastern regions. It is a hotspot for smuggling activities, operating discreetly beyond the reach of security authorities.
Abdel Tawab’s desperation to find his brother drives him to constantly search for him.
“We have reached out to every possible source and contacted numerous officials, but we have been unable to trace Adham's whereabouts,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“Even the smuggler who facilitated his travel has disappeared. Our current objective is to conduct a DNA analysis to determine whether Adham's remains are among the charred bodies or not,” added Abdel Tawab.
According to Abdel Tawab, the people of Abnoub city recently laid to rest the body of an individual named Haitham, who was aboard the boat with his brother.