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Migrants were coerced into paying for their release from a Benghazi prison

Migrants sent to sea with little food or water

An exhausted migrant is helped ashore after landing in Malta on November 9. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

An exhausted migrant is helped ashore after landing in Malta on November 9. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The 246 migrants rescued off Malta last week were coerced into paying for their release from a Benghazi prison, only to be forced onto an overcrowded boat with little food and water, the UNHCR revealed yesterday.

It was overcrowded and in terrible condition

The group of Africans, including 47 women and 28 children who arrived in Malta on November 9 after being rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta, have narrated their trail of horror to officials.

The migrants, mainly Eritrean, told UNHCR Malta that Libyan human traffickers gave them food and water for just two days. They then crammed them onto a boat with many fearing the worst when on the fifth day their engine broke down.

“This confirms that the new Libya is not safe. Armed groups are exploiting foreigners and acting with impunity,” Jon Hoisaeter, UNHCR Representative to Malta, told The Sunday Times.

The stories told to UNHCR staff by the Malta arrivals exposed a systematic system of exploitation of asylum seekers in Libya.

“Some people approached us in prison and asked us for money to be released and go by boat to Europe. There was no choice; that is the only way to be free,” migrants told the UN staff in Malta.

“If we did not behave they would have beaten us, and left us in prison.”

After paying for release from the prison, the group was held by an armed group for several months in a small compound outside Benghazi.

“It was overcrowded and in terrible condition, especially for the children. People were sleeping outside on mattresses because there was no space inside,” an asylum seeker recounted.

Day and night they could hear firearms, people shooting in the air. One of the men showed the UNHCR his wounded arm, hit by a stray bullet.

One woman was reported to have died in the compound outside Benghazi: “She was very sick. We told the armed men that she needed medicine and a doctor but they would not let her go.”

One year after Muammar Gaddafi’s death, black asylum seekers are still being rounded up and put in Libyan prisons on grounds that they are undocumented and have no permit.

Mr Hoisaeter said the UNHCR had multiple sources on information tallying with the migrants’ claims about Libya, which has still not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

“People have called us with similar claims and separate individuals recounted to us these kinds of stories in interviews. We also have people on the ground in Libya trying to gain access to detention,” he said.

This reality is reflected in a recent Amnesty International report, based on fact-finding visits to Libya between May and September, reiterating that undocumented foreign nationals in Libya are at risk of exploitation, arbitrary and indefinite detention, as well as beatings.”

Mr Hoisaeter said: “The signs we’re seeing are pretty clear. Libya is not a safe place for people seeking protection,” adding that it was now up to the Malta Refugee Commissioner to establish the migrants’ asylum claims.

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