When he saw boats in the distance, Issa knew he was going to live. It was July 2014 and he had spent hours in the sea, clinging to a plastic petrol container while women, men and children drowned around him. The small rubber boat that was supposed to take them all to Italy had sunk just two hours after leaving the Libyan coast. Of the 137 people Issa says were on board, only 49 survived.
Issa, from Burkina Faso, was not rescued by any passing ship but was picked up by the Libyan coastguard. Rather than being taken to a safe port in Italy as he had hoped, he was returned to Libya where he was handed over to the police. He says he was locked up for months in appalling conditions and beaten regularly by policemen who demanded money in exchange for his release.
“My hands were tied behind my back,” he said. “I was laying on the floor facing down, and they were beating me on the back with a belt and electric cables.”
Only after Issa’s family scraped together 625 OOO CFA (about £900), was he finally released.
In September last year, he tried to reach Italy again but after three days at sea, the boat he was on landed back on Libyan shores. “We were arrested upon arrival and taken to a prison in Tripoli, and two weeks later we were transferred to the city of Sabha. We learnt that we had been sold to traffickers.” After a month in captivity, he and others managed to escape. “Our abductors shot some people. I don’t know whether any of them died,” he said.
This is just one of the stories of people we interviewed during a recent visit to Agadez, a city in central Niger which has become a busy transit point for refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to get to Europe via Libya – as well as for those returning after suffering horrific abuse there.
They echo heart-wrenching stories I heard from the hundreds of refugees and migrants I met in reception centres in Italy. Many of them had been detained for months in Libya where they said they had been tortured, beaten, raped, humiliated. The word that stuck in my mind, used by so many of them to describe their experiences, is “hell”.
European governments are investing tens of millions in anti-migration measures in Niger, including by supporting Nigerien police operations to stop the flow of pick-up trucks that speed towards the Libyan border. They claim that these measures are necessary to protect those travelling. As one diplomat in Niger told me: “We are worried for the people, they are enslaved in Libya. We need to stop this. We can’t accept that people lose their lives and are abused in this way.”
If EU leaders really cared about the abuses refugees and migrants face in Libya, they would offer them safe and legal routes to Europe.