ONBOARD THE GEO BARENTS OFF LIBYA (AP) — Osman Touré was crying from the pain of repeated beatings and torture as he dialed his brother’s cellphone number.
“I’m in prison in Libya,” Touré said in that August 2017 call. “They will kill me if you don’t pay 2,500 dinars in 24 hours.”
Within days, Touré’s family transferred the roughly $550 demanded to secure his freedom from a government detention center in Libya. But Touré was not let go — instead, he was sold to a trafficker and kept enslaved for four more years.
Touré is among tens of thousands of migrants who have endured torture, sexual violence and extortion at the hands of guards in detention centers in Libya, a major hub for migrants fleeing poverty and wars in Africa and the Middle East, hoping for a better life in Europe.
The 25-year-old Guinean, along with two dozen other migrants, spoke to The Associated Press aboard the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya. Most had been held in trafficking warehouses and government detention centers in western Libya over the past four years.
They were among 60 migrants who fled Libya on Sept. 19 in two unseaworthy boats and were rescued a day later by the Geo Barents.
The European Union has sent 455 million euros to Libya since 2015, largely channeled through U.N. agencies and aimed at beefing up Libya’s coast guard, reinforcing its southern border and improving conditions for migrants.
However, huge sums have been diverted to networks of militiamen and traffickers who exploit migrants, according to a 2019 AP investigation. Coast guard members are also complicit, turning migrants over to detention centers under deals with militias or demanding payoffs to let others go.
Last week, U.N.-commissioned investigators said in a 32-page report that “policies meant to push migrants back to Libya to keep them away from European shores ultimately lead to abuses,” including possible crimes against humanity.
The migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, told the AP that detention center guards beat and tortured them, then extorted money from their relatives. Their bodies showed traces of old and recent injuries, and signs of bullet and knife wounds on their backs, legs, arms and faces.
On paper, the detention centers are run by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, overseen by the Interior Ministry and Libya’s interim authorities, who took power earlier this year under U.N. auspices to carry out national elections by the end of the year. But on the ground, notorious militias remain in control, according to migrants and the U.N. investigators.
Spokespeople for Libya’s government, the Interior Ministry, the directorate and the coast guard did not answer phone calls or respond to messages seeking comment.
Touré began his migration attempt in March 2015. Traffickers held him captive for months twice, in Niger and Algeria, before he crossed into Libya in April 2017, he said.
Four months later, Touré embarked from Libya, only to be intercepted by the coast guard and returned to Tripoli. At the port, he was taken to the al-Nasr Martyrs detention center in Zawiya.
That’s when the torture started. He described how guards would hang migrants upside down and whip their bare feet.
His second week in prison, six guards approached him. One slapped him hard on his face. The rest kicked and beat him. Then he was handed a cellphone and ordered to call his family.
Touré was taken from his cell three days after the phone call. He thought he would walk free. Instead, the guards sold him to a trafficker in Zawiya. He spent the next four years enslaved, working in the trafficker’s warehouse.
Finally his luck changed in September when the trafficker’s wife persuaded her husband to set him free, he said. Within days he was on a small inflatable boat with 55 others attempting the Mediterranean crossing.
Overladen, the boat did not make it far. Those onboard were rescued by the Geo Barents 48 nautical miles off Libya’s coast. They were taken to Sicily, where Italian authorities permitted the rescue ship to dock on Sept. 27 and let the migrants apply for asylum. They could still be returned to their home countries if their requests are denied.
Touré and other migrants said there was racism behind their abuse in Libya. The U.N. report found the same — that Black sub-Saharan Africans were likely to be subjected to harsher treatment than others.
“Libya isn’t a safe place for Black Africans,” Touré said.
For some, particularly Arab migrants, the ordeal ended without detention, as long as they paid. Waleed, a Tunisian, told the AP he bribed guards four times at the Tripoli port and walked free. Mohammed, a Moroccan, also said he was released at port in 2020 by handing over 3,000 dinars ($660). Both men gave only their first names out of fear for the safety of family members still inside Libya.
The Libyan coast guard has intercepted some 87,000 migrants in the Mediterranean since 2016, including about 26,300 so far this year, according to U.N. figures. But only about 10,000 are in detention centers, according to the U.N. migration agency, raising concerns that many are in the hands of criminal groups and traffickers, and others are dead.
The U.N. report did not name suspects, saying more investigation is needed to determine who was culpable.
But migrants and others inside Libya say the issue is clear cut: It’s the militias and warlords who have become powerful government figures in many areas.
The coastal town of Zawiya, where the al-Nasr Martyrs detention center is located, is controlled by the Nasr Martyrs militia, which have “the final word on all the town’s security and military matters,” said a former senior official at the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“It is a well-connected mafia with influence in each corner of the government,” the official said.
AP video journalist Ahmed Hatem contributed from aboard the Geo Barents.