Zintan Detention Center Closure Sends Eritrean Refugees Out of the Pan and Into the Fire

Radio Erena: 13 November 2020

According to sources on the ground in Libya, the Dhar el-Jebel detention center in Zintan, is getting ready to close its doors. It is expected that some time in the coming days, UNHCR and partners will be transferring the nearly 400 refugees housed there, mostly Eritreans, out of the detention center to the capital city of Tripoli. Refugees and activists hope they will receive aid and protection upon arrival, but UN agencies have hesitated to release details about the care they will receive.

The nightmare of life in the Dhar el-Jebel detention center (commonly referred to as the Zintan detention center) has been in the spotlight several times in the past few years, each time for a new horror: disease, famine, fires, attacks from militias. For this reason, it would be easy to assume the closure of the prison is a cause for celebration. However, for the refugees who were in Zintan at the time of its closure the situation is far more complex.

In Tripoli, refugees have a small measure of physical freedom, but live in constant fear. Unlike most of the modern world, Libya never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore they have not made any commitment to refugee protection. As a result, even if a person seeking asylum registers with UNHCR they do not receive any semblance of a durable legal status under Libyan law.

Without this basic protection, the simple acts of living and working in Tripoli come with inherent dangers. Refugees are an easy target for those who seek to profit off of them. Those who find work are exploited for long hours of hard manual labor with little pay, and landlords who rent apartments to them know they can inflate the prices without penalty. As a result, human beings pack into apartments like sardines, with a dozen people or more sleeping on the floor of a single bedroom. Many of these apartments are in decrepit buildings, and it’s not uncommon to find rooms with dirt floors and no door to keep out intruders. It was in one of these buildings where last January two Eritrean asylum seekers living in the Gargaresh neighborhood of Tripoli were murdered in their apartment just 10 days after they were sent out from a UNHCR-run facility. Even approaching the authorities carries danger as many officers are corrupt and collude with local traffickers, stoking fear among refugees that they will be extorted, kidnapped, or returned to prison. And just this week in Gargaresh, a 15-year-old Eritrean boy was shot and killed in a shelter when it was stormed by Libyan gunmen during prayers to usher in the new Geez month.

“It’s dangerous to live in Tripoli. You know, these people who lost their lives by the Libyan kidnappers… Why were they killed? And who killed them? Still [we] didn’t get a response.”

Halofom*, an Eritrean asylum seeker who has been in Libya since May 2017, is one of the asylum seekers waiting to be transferred from Zintan to Tripoli. He left his home country to escape lifelong servitude in the Eritrean army. Like all 12th-graders in Eritrea, he was sent to complete his education at a military training camp known as Sawa and at the end of the year he faced a matriculation exam that would decide the rest of his life. If he did not do well, he would be forced to conscript into a never-ending, mandatory army service which the UN Human Rights Council likens to slavery. “If you get a good mark in education you will be promoted to the colleges. If not, you will be a soldier.” Fearing for his safety and freedom, he made the difficult decision to flee.

Halofom crossed the border in secret, traveling on foot into Sudan and making his way to the capital city of Khartoum. He stayed there for nearly three years before being propositioned by the internationally known trafficker named Kidane (who is currently on trial in Addis Ababa for his crimes). Facing ongoing danger for Eritrean asylum seekers in Sudan, Halofom agreed. He paid $3,800 to be safely delivered in Europe. At the Libyan coast, he joined 120 other migrants and together they boarded the small lifeboat.

“After traveling about 11 hours we called to Italy to [rescue] us because the Mediterranean Sea was beginning [to have] big waves, and we were so scared,” Halofom recalled. When the Italians received their call for help, he felt a tinge of hope. “But the Italians [called] to the Libyan Coast Guard. After that they [returned] us back to Libya and [took] us to Tariq al Sikka [detention center].”

Like the more than 10,000 people who have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard this year, Halofom was pushed back to a shore fraught with danger. He entered his first Libyan detention center, Tariq al Sikka, in January 2018 and the authorities transferred him to Tariq al Matar detention center one month later. But Halofom then missed his UNHCR registration, as he fell victim to the all-too-common practice of prison guards coordinating with militias to use asylum seekers for unpaid slave labor. “I was [taken] away by the police to Zuwara for work as a slave because they forced me.” He was finally transferred to Zintan detention center in September 2018, and UNHCR registered him as an asylum seeker two months later.

The two years Halofom has spent in Zintan have been nothing short of a nightmare. In the year following his arrival to the prison, he watched 22 of his fellow inmates die from an outbreak of tuberculosis. The sick were held in the same hangars as the healthy, without ventilation to bring in fresh air. Aid organizations like MSF visited to bring medicine, but food shortages meant taking the pills on an empty stomach which causes severe side effects. Once the outbreak was finally under control, a massive fire tore through one of the holding cells, killing one young man and injuring others. Later, in early June of this year the front lines of the battle for control of Libya shifted, bringing new UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) control to the area, pitting government forces against Libyan National Army (LNA)-aligned and rogue militias, resulting in several attacks on the detention center.

Despite all of this danger, people like Halofom still fear for their safety outside the prison as much as they did inside – possibly more.

“How can I say it’s safe for refugees? We know Tripoli’s the center of Libya for the UNHCR, but for the refugees it’s also the center of kidnappers and outlaws that don’t have humanity. The UNHCR couldn’t take care of the refugees who were living in Tripoli [already], how can they keep us safe?”

*Name changed for safety

By Andrea Gagne

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