Caught migrants face squalor and death in Libya
- 1 June 2014
- From the section Africa
In an isolated Libyan compound, a black iron door creaks open, revealing gloom and human misery.
Inside are nearly 400 migrants in filthy conditions. There is barely room to sit, never mind sleep.
The men are sick, most sit passively on the floor. Some have moved into the building's metal rafters. They come from most of the countries in Africa; Niger, Eritrea, Gambia and Egypt to name a few.
Malik Kafasim, is 37 and from Eritrea. I ask if he has paid people-smugglers to get to Libya.
He responds: "Of course! We paid more than 1,600 dollar, from Khartoum to Libya, but unfortunately we were captured, somewhere."
They are covered in lice. Malik says some have been in the jail for more than three months.
Beside him are younger men. They give their ages one after the other, "16", "16" - and "15" says the last.
There are also men from as far afield as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
"Libya is an open door to Europe," is what the migrants, the people-smugglers and even the Libyan coastguard admit.
In a dark corner of the jail lay a man with bullet wounds. He is from Gambia; he will not say who shot him.
It is 320km (200 miles) to Italy from the shores of Libya. A group of nearly 40 men and women, mostly from Africa, was found off the Misrata coast only last month.
People smugglers told them to destroy their passports and other documents before the attempted crossing.
Their underpowered engine cut out four hours into the trip and they drifted for two days. Their water and food ran out.
It was pure luck the coastguard found them. Col Reda Essa, who commanded the rescue, says this is Europe's problem, as much as Libya's.
"We applied to the EU to buy boats and helicopters for search and rescue operations, but we haven't received anything," he says.
"We will not be able to hold back the increasing number of immigrants, the ball is now in the EU's court, and they must provide the necessary support."
On the open sea, it's people-smugglers, not the coastguard, who have the advantage.
Libya's problem is that it has only eight of these boats to patrol 1,930km of coastline. That is not nearly enough, says the colonel.
They need more night vision goggles and even more body bags for the number of migrants they are retrieving from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
At Misrata's morgue, Haj Ramadan explains that the refrigerators are so full of the bodies of migrants he has had to jam them closed. Once there were only three a year. Now it's eight a week.
"They're being terribly exploited by the people-smugglers," he says.
"We've been able to revive some and when they come round, they think they are in Italy. Not all of them die, some make it."
But the morgue is full of bodies - even on the floor.
Libya is a country that is barely functioning. Border patrols are carried out by part-timers and volunteers, like Ahmed al-Balaa.
He explains that immigrants appear in the desert at night, when it is cooler. On foot they follow for miles the power lines to the cities.
"We find that some of them have died on the way, there are graves by the roadside, for others we bring ambulances," Ahmed says.
At a checkpoint on the edge of Misrata, the guards explain that they find a few dozen migrants every few days. Plenty more pass through without discovery.
That night, they discover a truck with a false compartment. Inside, barely able to breath, are two dozen men. One carries a single possession - a Bible. They are helped out by the guards, most barely able to stand.
Captured, they already know they are not welcome. But the promise of jobs and money in Europe, they explain, is better than what they left behind.
The men have risked everything to get this far. Without action, Libya warns that more and more will follow.