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Editor’s note: Migrants quoted in this story requested to use their first names only because their immigration status remains uncertain.

Crossposted with permission from palabra

It was already dark on the evening of May 11, 2022, when Mahmoud, 30, from Egypt, clambered to the front of the rescue boat. The rough sea bounced the vessel up and down as he climbed onto a metal ladder on the side of a larger ship, assisted by two women in white helmets and orange waterproof jackets.

As he stepped onto the deck, more than 350 people from parts of Africa and the Middle East cheered, as hands pulled him further into the ship to where three women from his boat sat shivering on a bench. The stench of gasoline from their fuel-soaked clothes filled the deck.

A survivor waits on the deck of the Geo Barents search-and-rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea to be transported to a port of safety in Europe. April 28, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra

A survivor waits on the deck of the Geo Barents search-and-rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea to be transported to a port of safety in Europe. April 28, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra

The 67 passengers – including 13 children – were all suffering from exposure after two days at sea. Mahmoud’s face was burnt to a reddish brown, but he had survived his fourth attempt to reach his wife and children in Italy. Over the past year, he had been intercepted, detained, beaten, and starved, but this time, against the odds, he had passed through Libyan waters undetected and was rescued by the Geo Barents, a search-and-rescue ship operated by the humanitarian group, Doctors Without Borders (known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF).

Since 2020, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya has seen a new phenomenon in the Central Mediterranean where people are making repeated attempts to reach Europe. Last year, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) recorded more than 65,000 “illegal border crossings” in the seas surrounding Italy – 90% higher than 2020. In the first six months of 2022, attempts had increased by 23% compared to the same period in 2021.

Although the number of detections is rising, the count often includes the same person crossing and being apprehended multiple times. Climate change, conflicts, and political instability, particularly in Lebanon, Libya, and Tunisia, are all likely to trigger migration across the Mediterranean Sea, according to the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, an organization with 19 European member states.

The increasing efficiency of Libyan interceptions is in large part due to equipment and training provided by the European Union (EU) and individual member states in an attempt to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, as part of a global practice of externalizing borders.

“The purpose really isn't to have effective migration governance, but simply to have another country stop the movement of immigrants,” said Cristobal Ramón, an independent global immigration policy consultant based in Chicago.

In the United States, immigration officials have implemented similar policies. Since March 2020, many migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border have been turned away automatically, under Title 42, a public health order invoked by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic. Title 42 followed the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, known as Remain in Mexico, which forced many asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. immigration court proceedings in Mexico, often for months in dangerous Mexican border cities, where they can face kidnapping and extortion. Stricter policies have forced more migrants to take up perilous border crossings. In June, 53 migrants were found dead or dying in an airless cargo trailer in San Antonio.

In the Mediterranean Sea, a Doctors Without Borders search-and-rescue team transfers migrants from a crowded smugglers’ boat onto a rescue boat. Next, they are transported to the Geo Barents ship. May 9, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra

In the Mediterranean Sea, a Doctors Without Borders search-and-rescue team transfers migrants from a crowded smugglers’ boat onto a rescue boat. Next, they are transported to the Geo Barents ship. May 9, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra

The Central Mediterranean sea crossing also remains deadly. In 2021, 1,553 people were recorded as dead or missing; the 2022 toll reached 1,021 by September 6, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, which also adds that many deaths go unrecorded. Some will be rescued by non-governmental organizations, like MSF.

Today, around half of migrants detected are intercepted by Libyan authorities, only to be detained in Libya in deplorable conditions. In June, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council reported on the conditions migrants face in Libya. It found “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity are being committed against migrants in Libya,” including murder, disappearance, torture, and sexual violence.

MAHMOUD’S STORY

Two days after he was rescued, Mahmoud, together with more than 470 other survivors from seven rescues, were waiting aboard the Geo Barents for a European government to offer them a port of safety, where they could disembark and begin their application to remain in Europe.

The survivors rested on and under brown blankets, all in matching tracksuits, with little to do but talk or play cards. Without wifi or phone service, many expressed frustration at not being able to contact their loved ones.

At meal times, dozens of small groups formed around hundreds of steaming pouches of food, cooked in bags that conduct heat on contact with water. Many said the stodgy texture reminded them of their daily meal in detention in Libya, which typically consisted of just a few mouthfuls of macaroni.

One morning, Mahmoud asked if he could share his story with me. “Knowing what I know about Libya, I want to tell my story as a message to other people who are thinking about making the journey,” he said. “I want them to know what Libya is like, to prevent them from coming.”

From a bench in a quiet corner on one of the decks, while MSF staff ran back and forth attending to survivors’ needs, Mahmoud spoke softly in Egyptian Arabic. Abel, a middle-aged journalist, fleeing political persecution in Egypt, translated Mahmoud’s story to English.

A few years ago, Mahmoud married an Egyptian-Italian woman. Their first child, a daughter, now four, was born in Egypt but, at Mahmoud’s request, his wife gave birth to their now one-year-old son in Italy, where his son would have more opportunities and where she could find work, he said. In doing so, he had divided his family. “I couldn’t live like that. I wanted us to be together,'' he said.

But Mahmoud made his decision at a time when the journey across Africa and the Mediterranean has become increasingly fatal, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Detections of Egyptians crossing to Europe were seven times higher in 2021 than 2020.

Despite these risks, Mahmoud left his daughter with her grandmother in Egypt and tried to reach Europe last September. He said he was only at sea for two hours when the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted his small boat carrying around 100 people. Mahmoud recalled how the Coast Guard told them, “Don’t be scared, you will go home to your country.”

Men on a smuggler's boat in the Mediterranean Sea straddle the inflatable sides as there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit. May 10, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra

Men on a smuggler's boat in the Mediterranean Sea straddle the inflatable sides as there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit. May 10, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra

But Mahmoud didn’t go home. And he had every reason to be scared. “They took all of my documents, my passport, my marriage certificate. Everything,” he said. They were taken back to Libya and to a detention center near Tripoli, Mahmoud said.

Mahmoud believes that the guards singled him out because of his “good body from bodybuilding.” He recalled how three men laughed while they kicked him. The food was scarce. “In the morning, one bread. In the night, another one, just like this,” he said, holding his hands just a few inches apart. Water was “dirty, salty,” he said.

Mahmoud said he was detained in Sabratha, near Tripoli, for three months before his captors transferred him to another holding area, and then just two weeks later, he was transferred again. Mahmoud believes that each time he was relocated he was sold to a new group, as he was held by different people and the price for his release increased.

Federico Soda, IOM Libya’s Chief of Mission, confirmed that migrants are detained in deplorable conditions and often transferred to unofficial detention centers. “People are either extorted or handed back to smugglers and traffickers to relive a cycle of mistreatment and risk to life,” he said.

Neither the Libyan Ministry of Interior nor the Attorney General in Libya responded to repeated interview requests. However, the Attorney General’s Facebook page does reference one of the IOM’s publications as including “false data,” an allegation that IOM Libya categorically denies.

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

These international practices continue despite evidence of crimes against humanity and extorting migrants. In June 2021, the EU extended its Border Management Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) to June 2023, adding nearly 85 million euros to its budget with the main objective to assist Libyan authorities to disrupt smuggling, human trafficking, and terrorism networks in Libya and the Central Mediterranean region.

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While extending the funding of EUBAM, the EU publicly “urge(s) the Libyan authorities to put in place mechanisms improving the treatment of the migrants rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard, including after their disembarkation to Libya” ensuring that migrants are “placed in reception centers that meet international humanitarian standards,” an EU spokesperson told palabra.

However, Oezlem Demirel, a German politician and a member of European Parliament disagrees. In the last three years, she has asked over 140 written parliamentary questions scrutinizing European migration policies, arguing they “push back refugees or…let them die at EU borders.”

She proposes “safe and legal routes to Europe … in a world in which no one is forced to flee, but all people can move freely… in which the exploitation of people and nature for the profit of large corporations is fundamentally questioned and rejected.”

In Augusta, Italy, survivors disembark from the Geo Barents into a waiting area where they are processed by the Italian government. May 19, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

In Augusta, Italy, survivors disembark from the Geo Barents into a waiting area where they are processed by the Italian government. May 19, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

Without safe alternatives, it is widely expected by analysts that people will continue to risk their lives on routes with tragic consequences. “The EU policy and the U.S. policy converge because essentially they shut off any ability for individuals to apply in a safe, regularized fashion, for protection or find viable legal pathways to go to Europe,” said Ramón, the migration analyst.

Mahmoud himself didn’t feel like he could wait for a safe alternative to risking his life at sea. “The process takes years, so I decided to make the journey through Libya,'' he said.

DISREGARDING HUMAN RIGHTS

The U.S., EU, and its member states have a legal duty to adhere to international human rights, including the right of an individual not to be returned to a country where there is a reasonable fear of death, harm, or persecution (the principle of non-refoulement).

There is also a right to flee in international law. “Individuals should be allowed to exercise their right to leave any country including one's own to escape situations of danger,” said Professor Violeta Moreno-Lax, director of the Centre for the Legal Study of Borders, Mobility and Migration: (B)OrderS at Queen Mary University of London.

Karen Musalo, professor of international law at the University of California, Hastings, believes that the developed, industrialized, wealthy countries of the world have decided that “they don’t care.” She said there is a race to the bottom in the “normalization of practices which return migrants to harm.”

Over 100 people on a smugglers’ boat wait to be rescued and transferred to safety. The Geo Barents search-and-rescue ship and a fast response boat are seen in the background. May 9, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

Over 100 people on a smugglers’ boat wait to be rescued and transferred to safety. The Geo Barents search-and-rescue ship and a fast response boat are seen in the background. May 9, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

“It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind,” said Ramón. If “we push (our borders) back all the way to Libya the sense of obligation to upholding the rights of migrants just sort of dissipates. It's not our responsibility anymore. It’s their responsibility.”

Current global migration policies are based on deterrence, but “you can't deter desperation” said Ramón.

That said, some policies have had limited success. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March, Europe offered temporary protection to millions of Ukranians, waiving the usual documentation requirements. “The framework that the EU has is quite good…but I would like to see whether that policy works in (other parts of) Europe,” said Ramón.

RANSOM FOR RELEASE

When Mahmoud was detained in Libya, he had one failed attempt to escape. He was caught in the act and punished severely. “I was dying from all the kicking,” he said. “If I am an animal they would not do this with us.”

Finally, in February, after six months in detention - and 35 kilos (77 pounds) lighter - Mahmoud’s family tracked him down and negotiated his release for 8,000 Libyan dinars (about $1,650).

Inhumane detention stories are common among the survivors on the Geo Barents. A few weeks before Mahmoud was rescued, a group of 13 Eritrean boys squatted on black plastic matting, sharing stories via a self-elected spokesman, Jamel, a teenager with red curly hair. Their stories echoed Mahmoud’s experience.

“All prisons ask for money,” Jamel said in Arabic as an MSF staff member translated. “It’s around $1,500 dollars as the ransom for release but not everyone can afford to pay. This is a business,” he said. Ransom amounts tend to differ by nationality. A South Sudanese survivor believed that his countrymen pay less because they are not wealthy. IOM Libya also confirmed that amounts differ by nationality.

Survivors aboard the Geo Barents line up each day for a deck inspection and food distribution. May 16, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

Survivors aboard the Geo Barents line up each day for a deck inspection and food distribution. May 16, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

Like Mahmoud, many people slowly starve in detention. One of the Eritreans, Arian, explained that prisoners are thrown out of detention and into the desert when they weigh less than 25 kilos (55 pounds) because they are unlikely to survive much longer. “Lots of them died there,” he added as others nodded and the group fell into a heavy silence.

The UNHCR estimates that there are currently 2,431 people held in official detention centers in Libya. However, there are other unofficial detention centers and smugglers’ holding centers to which the UN does not have access. Soda, with the IOM, said that his organization has “always been firm that arbitrary detention must end and that a minimum degree of safety and human dignity must exist.”

TRAPPED

In any population, only a small percentage migrates, but those who do, might try multiple times. In interviews with people returned to Libya, IOM found that 40% intended to migrate again. Mahmoud said that, ultimately, he tried four times to reach his wife and child in Europe, was detained three times, and spent the equivalent of $10,000 in smugglers’ and release fees before he was rescued by MSF.

This phenomenon of making multiple attempts (recidivism) also happens on the U.S.-Mexico border, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) attributes to “the large number of expulsions” made under U.S. migration policies. In July 2022, 22% of CBP encounters on the Mexican border (43,994 encounters) had tried at least once before in that twelve-month period.

Repeat attempts generate more money for smugglers. In 2019, the Mexican government estimated that the migration industry for Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras was worth $615 million and that, on average, people paid $4,559 to reach the U.S.. The recidivism rate is higher today and so this amount may have subsequently increased.

Many deals with smugglers are non-rescindable, as was the case for two Egyptian cousins from Mahmoud’s boat. Saul, 13, and Muhammed, 35, spoke from the aft of the ship, on a deck a few meters above sea level. Saul sat cross-legged, quietly letting Muhammed tell their story.

Muhammed said that he paid a smuggler $4,000 to take them from Egypt to Europe to fulfill Saul’s dream of becoming a doctor. But when they reached Libya, the cousins were held with hundreds of others in what is commonly referred to among people in Libya as a smuggler’s “storage facility.” They are rooms which typically have no windows and little hygiene with insufficient food or water.

A woman pleads with rescuers to take her next as others wait to be transported to the Geo Barents, seen in the background. May 9, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

A woman pleads with rescuers to take her next as others wait to be transported to the Geo Barents, seen in the background. May 9, 2022. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps for palabra 

“I feared death in the sea, but we were told that if we didn’t follow (the smuggler’s) instructions we would be shot,” he said. Saul and Muhammed knew they were trapped when their smuggler executed someone who tried to escape.

And so, on May 9, 2021 in Sabratha, Mahmoud, Muhammed, and Saul had to board a wooden boat that was leaking before they left. For two days, and 110 miles, they bailed water out of the boat using cut-up water bottles, they said. “The smell of fuel below deck was too strong making it hard to breathe, but we had no choice,” Mahmoud said. “I was so tired, but I kept going up and down,” said Mahmoud, until eventually, they were rescued.

The shy Saul rarely spoke apart from the occasional “yes,” one of his only English words, as though to corroborate his cousin’s story.

The passengers on the Geo Barents were finally offered a port of safety in Sicily, Italy. The women and children disembarked on May 19, and on May 21, 10 days after Mahmoud was rescued, the men were taken into the custody of the Italian authorities, where almost half of asylum applications are rejected at the first instance.

Mahmoud said that he had no idea what the future held for him, but his face lit up as he recalled his rescue. “I’m so grateful to the fishermen and NGOs who helped to save my life,” he said. “I wasn’t scared of drowning, as it would be God’s decision, but I wasn’t going back to Libya this time. I would rather die than go back.”