UNHCR seeks US$210 million to help refugees risking death, rape, arbitrary detention, forced labour and starvation as they travel towards the Mediterranean.
Held captive by gun-toting smugglers at a warehouse in southern Libya, newlywed Somali refugee Maryam* was taken from her husband Ahmed* and raped — repeatedly — over several months. Only when she became pregnant was she returned to him.
“They forced him to work and punished him in front of me to humiliate him,” she says of the couple’s ordeal, which was only just beginning.
“They continued to beat me despite my condition, but one day a smuggler pushed me very hard. I fell and I miscarried my baby.”
After paying a ransom of 2,000 dinars — US$1,445 — they were freed, only to be betrayed and sold on to smugglers in the desert town of Bani Walid by a local man who had promised to help them.
“Bani Walid was even worse than before. It was more painful. They would torture and punish my husband all the time. They even stabbed him in the thigh. I was raped again … Again I fell pregnant … and again, due to the conditions there, I lost my baby,” she says.
One night, a guard left a door unlocked and the couple seized their chance to finally escape. Sheltered by the Somali community in Tripoli, the couple later attempted to cross the Mediterranean. But like so many others, they were intercepted by the authorities and returned to Ain Zara detention center in Tripoli.
“When we were caught at sea, people were beginning to drown,” recalls Maryam. “So, we were so happy when we saw the boat, but when we realized we were going back we couldn’t believe it.”
The waking nightmare lived by Maryam and Ahmed is becoming increasingly common for thousands of refugees and migrants who risk their lives in the hands of traffickers and smugglers on dangerous journeys from Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa, many seeking to reach safety in Europe.
Dangers along the route include being kidnapped, murdered, raped or sexually assaulted, being left to die in the desert, or being sold as slaves. Of those who reach the shores of the Mediterranean aboard a boat, at least 331 people died or went missing at sea this year after departing Libya — a rate equivalent to about one-in-six who attempt the journey.
In a bid to do all it can to save lives, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, today launched its Routes towards the Mediterranean strategy, seeking US$210 million to help thousands of people fleeing horrific abuses at the hands of traffickers and smugglers.
The agency aims to find alternatives for refugees like Maryam and Ahmed — who fled Somalia after three close family members,including their parents, were killed — so that they never need to set out overland in the first place..
As part of its work in the country, UNHCR has been identifying the most vulnerable people trapped inside Libyan detention centres, like Maryam and Ahmed, and taking them to its Gathering and Departure Facility in Tripoli, while they await evacuation out of the country. In March of this year, the couple were among more than 100 men, women, children evacuated by charter flight to Niger.
“In Niger, we are finally safe,” Maryam says. “We are so happy to finally live together as a couple. We live in hope for a good future and that we can spend the rest of our lives together.”
Since the flights began in 2017, UNHCR has evacuated 2,913 of the most vulnerable to safety in Niger, where more lasting solutions, such as resettlement to third countries, can be found for them.
“The horrors that people face along these perilous journeys are beyond all comprehension. They are a violation of human rights and dignity,” says Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR Representative in Niger. “We work to bring a sense of hope back to these people, through care and healing.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people in this story.