Trapped: Why 2,400 Immigrants Risk Dying In The Libyan Desert

A new humanitarian crisis is unfolding after the fall of Gaddafi: thousands of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as some from Pakistan and Syria, have been detained in the middle of the desert in southern Libya. No way out, and conditions are li

Chadian immigrants in the Libyan desert in 2011 (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)
Chadian immigrants in the Libyan desert in 2011 (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)
Luc Mathieu

SABHA – They are prisoners of the desert, trapped by the Libyan Sahara.

More than 1,300 illegal immigrants are detained here, some 100 kilometers outside the city of Sabha, along the road between the sand dunes to the south and the border with Niger. They have no shelter, not even makeshift tents, forced to sleep on the sandy, pebble-studded ground. Only the lucky few among them have a blanket to protect them from the gusts of scorching wind. The others curl up so they can shield their faces in their keffiyehs or T-shirts. It is early evening, and the temperature in this southern Libyan desert known for its scorpions and vipers is 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit).

"It's a nightmare," says Sebastian, a 36-year-old plumber from Benin. "I have no idea what's going to happen to me – if I'm going to die here or if they are going to let me go. I have no money, no passport, no phone. It's as if I no longer existed."

Sebastian was one of the first to be interned at this camp created a month ago by the Libyan army. Gradually he was joined by hundreds of others from Chad, Niger, Ethiopia, Mali, Pakistan, Syria and the Bengal region of India and Bangladesh. All were arrested as they crossed over clandestinely from Niger, Chad or Sudan.

They've been surviving since in this prison without bars, guarded by about a dozen soldiers. Meals consist of one or two plates of rice a day. "The thirst is the worst," says Suleiman, a 19-year-old Chadian. "There's barely a liter of water a day. And it's not good – it's full of dust and sand." Some 40 of the detainees are sick with diarrhea or wounds that haven't been tended to. A Sudanese adolescent has a dislocated shoulder, the result of falling off the pick-up truck that brought him across the border. Behind him is a Beninese with an eye so red and swollen he can no longer open it. "It hurts more and more. The sand and dust have become encrusted in the eyelid," he says.

"We're overwhelmed, I don't know what to do anymore," admits Massa Senoussi Taher, who is responsible for the camp. "The government isn't helping us; they haven't even sent anybody out here. Only the Red Cross has come out. It's up to us to go to the surrounding villages to get food and water. At most, we can still hold out for another week or two."

A police chief's dilemma

In Sabha, the capital of the Fezzan region, police chief Sanoussi Saleh says that he too is at a loss as to what to do. "I've contacted the government, the UN, and some NGOs but nobody has gotten back to me. We're in deadlock --we can't manage so many illegal immigrants." Two other camps were opened in recent weeks between Sabha and the border with Niger. Altogether, according to local authorities, more than 2,400 immigrants have been interned in southern Libya.

"I have never seen so many illegal immigrants --and I've been a soldier in this region for 15 years. Every week, we arrest more and more of them. And we don't kid ourselves: thousands more are getting through without being stopped by us. It's almost as if they are being pushed by somebody," says Massa Senoussi Taher.

Without being able to furnish proof, several local leaders state that this influx of immigrants is down to ex-officials of the Gaddafi regime who escaped to Niger and Chad. "They're trying to destabilize the new Libyan state," Sanoussi Saleh says.

But at the camp along the Sabha road, the Libyan revolution isn't something the prisoners cite. "Gaddafi's death played no role in my decision to come to Libya," Sebastian explains. "A relative of mine who's lived in Sabha for 20 years advised me to come. He said I'd find work here, no problem, and I headed here without hesitation."

In the southern part of Libya, the revolution mainly impacted the way borders are guarded. Since Gaddafi's death, the Toubou people --Libyans of African origin--have assumed responsibility. "It's normal --we're the ones who liberated the region, with our vehicles and our arms. We've always lived around here; we know the terrain better than a GPS. And we know the trails used by the people bringing immigrants across," says Barka Wardougou, who heads the military council in Murzuk, a Toubou stronghold.

But the Toubous already feel marginalized by Arab tribes and the new powers-that-be. "The government doesn't put enough means at our disposal. Our men are exhausted. There are only 300 of them, and they have to spend five days in a row in the desert. We need 1,200 more men, more vehicles, and better means of communication. We're talking about a budget of $50 million," says Jomodé Elie Getty, who is responsible for external relations for the Toubous.

Toubou leaders also criticize the nomination of Abdul Wahab Hassain Qaid as commander of border security in the southern part of the country. Brother of Abou Yahya al-Libi, the No. 2 of al Qaeda who was killed in Pakistan in early June by an American drone, he is said to have received 170 million dinars ($120 million) and a fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles from Qatar. "Why nominate an Islamist?" asks Barka Wardougou. "Wasn't there anybody else?"

Colonel Saleh, the police chief, admits that he's "worn-down psychologically." Night has fallen. He looks out at the prisoners sleeping in the sand around camp fires. "It's not right to inflict this on them. If nobody does anything, they'll die here. I'm at the point where I ask myself if it wouldn't be better if I just let them go."

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

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