African migrants talk about trying to get to Europe to start new lives
Dozens of young African men look forlornly through the iron bars of a detention centre on the Libyan coast.
They’re migrants from across the continent – Senegal, Gambia, Eritrea – and many say they’ve been detained in the city of Sabratha after attempting to reach Europe in a smuggler’s boat.
Each year, thousands of people fleeing war and repression in the Middle East and Africa try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the hope of making a new life in Europe.
Many make their way by land to Libya where they pay smugglers to ferry them to Europe’s nearest shores – the Italian island of Lampedusa or the island nation of Malta.
Libya has been riven by turmoil and has been struggling with militias since the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Towns and cities along its thousand-mile (kilometre), largely unpatrolled coastline have become collection points where migrants mass, scrounging up the hundreds of dollars to pay smugglers for the journey.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in the first six months of this year, 8,400 migrants reached Malta and Italy by sea.
Almost all of them set off from Libya.
That’s almost twice the number in the first six months of 2012, UNHCR says.
For some migrants, the journey ends in tragedy.
Crammed onto rickety boats that lack life vests and routinely require rescue, few make the crossing safely.
Hundreds have died in a string of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean this month alone.
At least 365 people – mostly Eritreans – died when their boat sank within sight of Lampedusa, in one of the worst verified migrant sea tragedies in the Mediterranean.
For those who avoid a watery grave, the journey often ends at a detention centre – like the one in Sabratha, a coastal city of about 110-thousand people.
Officials say the city is now home to about 10-thousand migrants waiting for a boat to take them the 200 miles (322 kilometres) to Malta or Lampedusa.
Libya’s chaos since the overthrow of Gadhafi has turned the country into a prime springboard for tens of thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea.
Activists and police say human smuggling has reached the level of a mafia-style organised industry, involving the country’s out-of-control militias and corrupt officials.
They claim militias use their own offices as well as stores, schools and abandoned buildings as detention centres for migrants – often abusing them and holding them hostage until they receive money from the migrants’ families, and demanding a cut from others in the smuggling network.
Among those who crossed the vast Libyan desert in an attempt to reach Europe is Suleiman Sabari, a migrant from Senegal.
He had hoped to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, but is now locked up at the Sebratha immigration detention centre.
In an recent interview with the Associated Press, he said he would prefer to return home to Senegal than remain behind bars.
“Police caught me and I have been here for three months,” he said. “The police do not respect my situation because my life is going to Europe, and if I can’t go to Europe, police should take me to my home country, you see, because I am tired here, here is not good.”
Musa Adabo, a Gambian migrant, echoed those thoughts.
“I came to Libya to find money, to build my life, to search for greener pastures, that’s why I am here,” he told the AP. “But I am not seeing all that because Libya is hard to live in for me. So it’s even better to pass (through Libya) and go to Europe – and even go back to my country.”
There are women and children at the Sebratha detention centre, too.
Ayshat Aziz, a Nigerian migrant, told the AP that she and fellow detainees were suffering physical abuse.
People fleeing violence in Syria are also reaching the Libyan coastline.
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