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Libya Struggles With Massive Boat People Crisis

FILE - African migrants look through bars of a locked door at Sabratha migrant detention center for men in Sabratha, Libya, Oct. 2013.
FILE - African migrants look through bars of a locked door at Sabratha migrant detention center for men in Sabratha, Libya, Oct. 2013.

Libyan officials suspect there could be up to a million illegal immigrants in the country planning to board smugglers’ boats for the perilous sea-crossing to Italy.

They also say the North African country, ensnared in civil conflict, can’t cope.

At a crowded detention center in the Libyan capital, Collins, a 30-year-old construction worker, sheds tears as he talks over the noise.

“They give us food, [but] I want to go back to Ghana, I love my country," he says. "I just came to raise enough money to go and start my business. I was into construction ... renting out scaffolds and tools and equipment, but just to come here and get some money and enlarge my business.”

Squatting under the scorching North African sun in the facility courtyard, Collins is surrounded by some 300 others that Libyan police or militiamen caught trying to reach Europe aboard people-smuggling boats or working illegally in the strife-torn nation.

Hailing from nearly every sub-Saharan African nation, their inability to depart for distant northern shores is a growing problem for the oil-rich nation vexed by civil unrest and dueling governments.

Moving through the courtyard, guards order the men — and boys — to bow their heads. When they hear the VOA correspondent ask why, they shout at the detainees to look up; one guard pokes some men with a stick but throws it away after a colleague whispers in his ear.

"We are praying that they can do something, that they can free us," Richard, a 28-year-old Ghanaian plasterer, says. "If they are not to free us, they can take us back to our countries so that we can get our freedom, because we are here and we are suffering too much, the pain is too much.”

But the guards at this small detention center along Tripoli’s airport road are mostly untrained militiamen who lack the adequate resources and preparation to cope with this increasingly desperate migrant population. Constantly sensing the potential for mob violence only makes it that much harder to do the best job they can with what few resources they have.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, Libya currently hosts 15 operational migrant detention centers, whose conditions are typically described as poor, "with urgent needs for more medical help, improved ventilation and sanitation as well as relief items."

The facilities here on airport road are squalid. Men crowd into two narrow covered warehouses at night, with just weak overhead fans to cool them; they have no distractions, and there is no specialized health assistance for those with complex illnesses.

Melud Juma Salem, the facility director, says international support is vital to erecting purpose-built, safe facilities designed to handle the massive number of detainees processed.

"A couple of TVs would help and so would air-conditioning for the summer and heaters for winter nights," he says via a translator. "These people are human beings in the end.”

When I observe that none accuse the guards of mistreatment, he says "I should remember that some of these men are criminals."

"Last night they tried to break out through a window to escape," he says. "These people cause many problems."

Karim, a 22-year-old car mechanic from Senegal, had been trying to board a smuggler’s boat for four months before being caught two weeks ago.

“[But] not in a boat, not yet in a boat," he says, implying that even boarding a vessel might have represented some kind of small victory, however illusory.

Libyan detention centers are bulging with such migrants — whose dreams of a better life in Europe are dashed even before they manage to board the rickety crafts that might get them there.