After three days at sea trying to reach Europe, Demba Dembele was intercepted by Libya’s EU-backed coastguard and returned to Tripoli where, like other migrants, he took a taxi and set off into the city.
For years, migrants sent back to Libya have been routinely transferred to government-affiliated detention centres notorious for squalid conditions and abuse.
Now, with several centres closing, some migrants are allowed to walk free when they disembark, though they face an uncertain fate in a country shaken by renewed conflict.
Dembele, a 28-year-old from Mali, twice tried to reach Europe. After his first attempt failed, he spent three months in detention where he twice saw guards firing on migrants who tried to escape.
“The first time, people forced the door and they shot at them. They beat people,” he said. A Liberian man was shot dead. “It was done in front of me.”
Smugglers’ boats leave frequently for Europe, but the number of migrants intercepted and returned to Libya has risen over the past two years during an Italian-led, EU-backed push to cut off crossings.
This coincided with a collapse in networks that sent more than 600 000 across the central Mediterranean from 2014-2017, as armed groups seeking to clean up their image moved away from the trade. Just 8 400 migrants made the crossing to Italy so far this year and 7 400 have been intercepted and returned, according to UN data.
The shift made Libya even more brutal for migrants who remain, exposing them to increased levels of abuse and extortion by smugglers struggling to make money in a shrinking market, researchers and aid workers say.
Since April, there has been sustained fighting in western Libya after eastern-based forces led by Khalifa Haftar made a bid to seize Tripoli.
A 49-year-old Nigerian on the same boat as Dembele, said he had been in Libya for four years and was working in a cellophane factory before the recent fighting. “It was the war that made me decide to leave,” the Nigerian said.
Detention centres nominally under the Tripoli-based, internationally recognised government are controlled by armed groups now part of the fight against Haftar. Some migrants have been enlisted in the war effort, aid workers and rights groups say. A Reuters reporter saw migrants moving weapons at an armed group base not far from the front line in southern Tripoli.
The centres are also targets. In July, more than 50 migrants were killed in an air strike on a centre in Tajoura, close to where Dembele disembarked. Those who fled the strike overwhelmed a facility designed by the UNHCR for refugees and asylum seekers, plagued by problems since opening late last year.
Tajoura detention centre took in more migrants after the strike but is not accepting new arrivals, a coastguard official said. Centres in Al-Khoms and Misrata shut following international pressure calling for their closure.
Dembele and more than 80 other African migrants who left in taxis avoided immediate detention, aid workers worry some may be more vulnerable to smugglers if they are not taken to the centres, where international organisations at least have sporadic access.
UNHCR, which struggles to evacuate people and recently started transferring refugees to Rwanda, said some migrants try to bribe their way into centres in the hope they will be resettled.
Libya has an estimated migrant population of 640 000. Centres house just 5 000, but turnover can be rapid. In the past, centres closed reopened or new centres spring up at different sites.
After closing the Misrata centre last week, Libyan authorities transferred 100 refugees and migrants to other centres with a record of “abuses, violence, exploitation and forced disappearances”, said Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which provides care for detained migrants.
“They are moved from one detention centre to another, seeing conditions go from bad to worse in an endless cycle of despair and violence,” said Sacha Petiot, MSF mission head.