Wed, May 10, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Refugees who survive the Sahara face torture in Libyan town

By Edward McAllister  /  Reuters, BRIKAMA, The Gambia

“They said: ‘If you don’t pay, we will kill your nephew,’” Hydara said.

He was beaten on the back with batons while his uncle listened to the screams on the other end of the line.

A few days later, his uncle paid the money to an agent in Dakar and Hydara was released.

Reuters could not independently verify Hydara’s account. However, the other people interviewed said they knew of refugees who had been kidnapped for ransom or sold from one smuggler to another.

Colonel Khaled al-Azhari, the head of the department for countering illegal migration in Libya’s southern region, told reporters that Libya needed “urgent support” to patrol its borders to stop refugees coming from Niger to the south.

He denied that refugees were beaten or sold by smuggling gangs, or held for ransoms.

“The migrants say this because they want to get asylum from European countries,” he said.

However, he nonetheless added that police were unable to stop powerful smuggling networks with the little resources they have.

Libya, via Niger, is the only viable passage left to Europe for west African refugees after other routes through the Canary Islands, Algeria and Morocco were shut down by increased border patrols in recent years. Nearly 300,000 refugees crossed the desert from Niger to Libya between February and December last year, the International Organization for Migration said last month, with the vast majority ending up in Sabha.

“The migrants leave from Niger into a black hole,” the organization’s mission chief in Niger Giuseppe Loprete said.

Hydara was flown back to Gambia from Tripoli last month by the organization with 170 other refugees after ending up in a UN refugee camp.

In a program mainly funded by European countries, the organization aims to fly up to 10,000 refugees back to their home countries from Libya this year.

It says the voluntary repatriation scheme is meant to offer a way out to those stuck in Libya without money, work, or a means to move on.

Fourteen months after leaving with some fruit, a change of clothes and about US$1,000 in cash, he found himself back in his family’s basic home in Brikama in western Gambia.

“The journey was hell, but I never regretted it,” Hydara said. “I just want to get a better job and pursue my education in Europe. I cannot do it here.”

Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami

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