Mohammed was one of the hundreds of other migrants held by human traffickers in Libya. He was forced for weeks by armed men forced to make a daily phone call to his family to plead for ransom money.
Often the routine would be accompanied by beatings so his screams would be heard by loved ones at the end of the line in Mogadishu in Somalia.
“[The traffickers] treat you very badly. When you arrive, they tell you to take off all your clothes. You sleep on the floor. They beat you . . . They rape women in front of you,” Mohammed said in an interview in February in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. “These are the rules of the camps.”
Eventually, his relatives raised $3,000 and the traffickers packed him and 80 other migrants into a boat to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, only for the vessel to capsize. Many drowned, but Mohammed, who asked for his real name not to be published, swam back to the shore.
Two years on, the 23-year-old, who now lives with other Somali migrants in Tripoli, was seeking assistance along with dozens of other migrants at a UN refugee centre when he spoke to the Financial Times.
Mohammed’s tale echoes thousands of others in Libya, one of the main gateways to Europe, where the trade in people has become part of a flourishing war economy.
“Migrants have become income generating assets and the detention centres are the real money makers,” said Liam Kelly, country director of the Danish Refugee Council in Tripoli. “The government doesn’t really control them, they are controlled by armed groups and the EU and other agencies are indirectly funding them.”
Since 2015, the EU has provided €408m to programmes intended to stem the flow of migrants, including support for the Libyan Coast Guard, which is tasked with intercepting boats and returning migrants to the north African state, often to detention centres.
Some, like the one Mohammed was held in are run by traffickers and gangs. Others are ostensibly overseen by the weak UN-backed government in Tripoli. But even those 16 “official” centres, which hold up to 4,000 people are affiliated to militias and the conditions are dire, aid officials say.
Often the centres are hangars or warehouses, with fighters’ barracks and ammunition stores nearby. This puts the migrants at risk of becoming military targets — on top of the risk of abuse they already face — which has intensified criticism of the EU’s support of the Libyan Coast Guard and other initiatives.
By financing programmes that result in the return of migrants to such camps, the EU is contributing to serious human rights violations, according to the Global Legal Action Network and two other groups that filed a complaint this week at a Brussels court calling for the bloc’s funding to be suspended.
“Without human rights safeguards the EU programme in Libya is in flagrant violation of EU and international laws and is complicit in the human suffering caused by the return of migrants to Libya,” said Dr Valentina Azarova a legal adviser to Glan.
Migrants have already been caught up in Libya’s war, which has escalated in recent weeks. In July, 53 people were killed in an official centre in the town of Tajoura, when it was hit by an air strike. The centre was under the control of a militia aligned to the government, the Daman Brigade, which used the complex as its headquarters and to store military equipment, according to a UN report. The UN said a “foreign aircraft” backing Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general who triggered the war by launching an offensive on Tripoli a year ago, conducted the strike.
Peter Stano, an EU spokesman, said the priority of the EU’s migration projects in Libya was “to provide assistance to migrants and refugees stranded in the country and prevent that people risk their lives by embarking on dangerous journeys in the first place”.
“We believe that the conditions in which migrants and refugees are held in detention centres are unacceptable,” Mr Stano said. “We continuously encourage the Libyan authorities to take effective measures to ensure the immediate cessation of human rights violations and inhumane treatments inflicted on migrants in the detention centres.”
Fathi Bashagha, Libya’s interior minister, said Tripoli also wanted the centres closed. “We don’t like the camps here,” he said. “Now Libya is in a war we cannot secure our border, we cannot give big attention even to our people, not to mention migrants. But we continue to feed them and give them healthcare.”
All the while, the flow of migrants continues.
Traffickers put a high value on people from the Horn of Africa like Mohammed, who are known as “camels” because their large diaspora communities mean they can be “tapped and bled” for ransoms, aid workers said.
Mohammed was oblivious of the risks when he set out from Mogadishu. After reaching Somalia’s Bosaso port he contacted a smuggler, paid $110 and was put on a boat. He ended up in Aden, the Yemeni port, where he was held for four months. He was then smuggled to Libya via Sudan. After first being informed the cost of getting to Europe would be $1,000 he was told it would be $5,000.
“They promised something different,” he said