On average, 14 migrants drown in the Mediterranean every day. The nightmare for many begins long before they set out to sea in flimsy and overcrowded rubber dinghies, as the journey they make across the desert to get to the coast some say is even more deadly than the sea itself. It was a story I had no idea about until I went down to the south of Libya last year to document the migrants’ journey for a new documentary.
Maybe it’s because the news of migrants drowning in the Med has been going on for such a long time that many people have become desensitised to it. Or perhaps the story of people dying in their hundreds in the desert is not widely reported because African lives are not valued as highly as European ones by the western media. Or maybe it is simply because it is a difficult place for journalists to access and report from.
When I arrived in southern Libya with our film team, I met dozens of migrants emerging from the Sahara in a state of shock at what they had endured. Almost all told of witnessing fellow migrants dying on the two-week desert crossing from places like Nigeria and Ivory Coast in the west and Sudan and Somalia in the east.
I’ve travelled to many countries over the past 15 years and have seen many desperate situations: child soldiers forced to kill in the Congo, young girls trafficked into brothels in India, British soldiers killed and maimed in Afghanistan.
Libya was different in one important respect. In all of the other places there have been determined people in aid agencies and other organisations working to make things better, and this at least gave me hope.
In Libya today, there are barely any NGOs or aid agencies at all and very few doctors. The country is divided with three competing governments and even they can’t control the hundreds of armed militias that have sprung up since the end of Gaddafi’s dictatorship. In this chaos, migrants are not only lacking in any legal or practical protection but they also represent a huge source of income to unscrupulous smuggling gangs.
What I saw in Libya is a new kind of modern-day slave trade. Traffickers fleece the migrants of huge sums of money. But worse, they are then often beaten, kidnapped and sold into bonded labour or forced to work, for months or even years, to pay off their captors. Women are often trafficked into prostitution. The smugglers tell them they are going to Italy before selling them to brothel owners where they are subjected to indefinite rape and assault, with little chance of escape.
Even when migrants end up in “official” detention centres, they are kept in atrocious conditions. I met a young Nigerian woman called Aisha who was bleeding heavily after giving birth to a baby girl on a squalid toilet floor. The baby died three days after being born. There was no doctor or medicine available to help her.
It seems nobody wants them. Not their own countries, Libya or Europe. European leaders, under pressure to reduce the number of people entering their countries as migrants, have signed a new deal with Libya, but far from helping people to escape, the EU deal is aimed at keeping them there.
Now that we are aware of what migrants in Libya endure, and given our own role in the country’s decline into chaos, can we really consider this an acceptable solution to such a horrific situation?