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Detention in 'Guantanamo', Libya

Italian journalist Gabriele del Grande says Libya is not a safe country for asylum seekers. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

Italian journalist Gabriele del Grande says Libya is not a safe country for asylum seekers. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

Fifty-odd men huddled in a three-by-eight metre room. The word Guantanamo was scribbled on one of the walls.

This is not the notorious US-run prison camp in Cuba, where al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects have been detained. It is a detention centre in Libya where a number of asylum seekers are detained.

An Eritrean man is taken out of the small room to be interviewed by visiting journalists in the presence of the detention centre's director. "Everything's good, everything's good," he says as his body shakes uncontrollably.

Of course, not everything is good, recounts Italian journalist Gabriele del Grande, who has tenaciously followed the fate of immigrants in Libya, seeing the suffering with his own eyes, including in the centre in Zlitan.

"It was hell. One man had been in that cell for five months. He gave me a piece of paper and said: 'Call my mother; tell her I'm still alive'," he tells The Times during a seminar organised by the Jesuit Refugee Service to mark World Refugee Day, today.

Touring Libya, the 27-year-old journalist has seen the containers used to transport detainees across the desert to the southern point of the African country. Some 200 people are packed like sardines, standing up in the containers for a journey that lasts days.

Libya has consistently refuted its alleged human rights breaches. When faced with similar allegations, in an interview with The Sunday Times last year, Libyan Ambassador Saad El Shlmani insisted his country was sensitive to the plight of immigrants, underlining the struggle to find a balance between security needs and "giving these people a job, something to eat and the opportunity to live in a dignified way during their stay in your country".

The Italian journalist's reportage on the ground was recorded in a book Mamadou Va A Morire (Mamadou Goes To Die), which has already been translated from Italian to German and Spanish.

"At first, I did not want to believe it. Some people have died in these circumstances. They are treated like animals," he says.

The situation is worse for women, many of whom are sexually assaulted while in detention while men are tortured.

"The police are trained to torture people. They beat the men or put them in a one-by-one metre isolation cell. One man was in the cell for a month. He could not even lie down."

And, according to Mr del Grande, Libyan police enter into "business arrangements" with the smugglers. He says in Kufra, in southeast Libya, smugglers pay 30 dinars (some €20) to free a prisoner, take him to their home and ask him to pay for the voyage across the desert.

"And it is not the first time that by the time they cross the desert, the smugglers phone the police again and have the migrants arrested. One man did the journey from Kufra to Tripoli seven times."

This, he continues, is why some women cross the Mediterranean with small children. The children were born during the journey or in detention centres, some of them the result of rape.

The testimony comes in the wake of Italy's decision to repatriate immigrants to the North African state. Both Italy and Malta have floated the idea of setting up an agency in Libya were asylum seekers would be able to apply for protection.

Joseph St John, director of policy development at the Justice and Home Affairs Ministry, defends the suggestion.

"A joint office in Libya would allow us to look at asylum applications and try to stop the dangerous boat trips that can result in loss of lives at sea," he says, adding that solutions with Libya need to be found because the country is at the centre of an important migratory route.

But Mr del Grande says migrants will find other routes that might even be more dangerous.

"Libya is not a safe country, not even for Libyan citizens. Is this the country we want to cooperate with out of necessity," he asks.

Chris Nash, from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, agrees that Libya is not a safe place for migrants. "A safe port must be an EU port," he insists, adding that it is not unusual for 70 migrants to be detained in a small room.

"Responsibility sharing is key to solving the problem but within EU states," he says, adding that while Malta is justified to call on the EU for support it has obligations. "Both Malta and the EU need to do more. If refugees and asylum seekers suffer first, all our fundamental rights will suffer next."

Damtew Dessalegne, deputy representative of UNHCR Rome, says a processing centre was not a bad idea as long as it was inside the EU rather than outside.

"It takes courage to be a refugee. Courage not to give up hope," he says.

This courage was shown by two Somali journalists who fled their war-torn country and are now living in Malta, having been granted humanitarian protection.

"We were trying to report about what was happening in Somalia. But if we tell the truth, we risk our lives," Bille Morisek says, adding that 14 journalists have been killed in Somalia since 2007.

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