Battles over Libya's dangerous migrant smuggling routes

A large group of migrants sitting in rows on the ground

The town of Kufra in Libya's distant southern desert is a long way from anywhere - historically it was a key trading station and place of rest for travellers between central and northern Africa. It has also long had a reputation for smuggling and in recent years that cargo has increasingly been human beings.

Although there was relatively little fighting in this dusty, run-down town during last year's uprising against Libya's former leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, there have been violent clashes in recent weeks in which more than 100 people have lost their lives.

The fighting has been between local Arab Zwia groups and the Tabu - black Africans associated with the smuggling trade from Chad and further afield.

The Tabu have been accused of fomenting violence and instability to keep the border tense and their smuggling routes open.

Perhaps predictably, caught up in the middle are thousands of refugees and economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Migrants seeking jobs and a better life or fleeing violence in their home countries have often moved through Libya and used Kufra as a staging point.

But the new Libyan government says the situation along its southern border is becoming unmanageable.

To be more exact the concerns and complaints come from local officials in the Kufra region - there is no sense of any central authority here in the desert, and that is part of the problem.

Robbed by traffickers

At an old abandoned police station in the centre of Kufra we found more than 800 African refuges and migrants. They were mainly men but some women also from Somalia, Chad, Sudan and beyond.

Most of the men I spoke to had paid large sums of money to unscrupulous traffickers to facilitate the long journey across the desert. Many, like one young man from Somalia had then been robbed of everything he had left.

"It was a really long, difficult journey," he told me as he sat, crammed in the dusty courtyard, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others.

"Near the border [with Chad] we were held and beaten for many days. Everything we had was taken from us."

The refugees say they are being well looked after by the local council in Kufra.

Conditions are basic and cramped but a large pot of pasta and vegetables, cooking on the open fire, suggested they were being fed and given basic shelter.

Although a small number of aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross come and go to check on the condition of the refugees, local officials say it is not enough.

Ali Abdulrahim is the new Libyan government's security chief in Kufra. His sparse office overlooks the courtyard crowded with quiet, stoical but almost expressionless migrants.

"We need much more help from the aid agencies, but these people cannot stay here," says Mr Abdulrahim.

"We have to do something about our open borders."

Desperate measures

Local officials and Arab (Zwia) fighters say that armed men, often coming from Chad, are hiding in among the migrants and trying to penetrate Libyan territory, keeping the smuggling trade going.

Image caption Officials in Kufra want to build a wall of wrecked vehicles to try to keep migrants out

At one checkpoint outside the city I saw a truck with assorted rifles and machine guns that, soldiers said, had been confiscated from African migrants.

Sub-Saharans are often accused in Libya of being paid fighters. Most, including the vast majority of people we came across, had nothing whatsoever to do with the fighting. They were clearly frightened and desperate people.

With little evidence of a co-ordinated approach to the problem from a non-existent central authority in distant Tripoli, the local official showed me the new, desperate, approach to containing the crisis.

"This is how we're going to keep the refugees out," says Mr Abdulrahim, showing me a small mountain of old, wrecked cars some already loaded into trucks.

The plan was simple - but almost certainly unworkable. A 150km (93 mile) "barrier" along part of Libya's border with Chad, five metres high and made from nothing but old cars.

Desperate times bring desperate measures.

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