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Meet the Libyan Militia Detaining Migrants in a Zoo

Said Ben Suleiman's brigade—and some lions, camels, and spider monkeys—are on the frontline of Europe's immigration crisis. They run a holding cell in one of the zoo’s empty offices and make frequent raids on boatloads of migrants setting off from...
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Κείμενο Wil Crisp
23.10.13

Said Ben Suleiman, hanging out with some spider monkeys

Said Ben Suleiman stared into the spider monkey cage at the Tripoli zoo, lost in thought. He used to have one of the cushiest militia postings in all of Libya, but now his job was getting more demanding by the day.

In the wake of Libya’s 2011 revolution, Said’s brigade—which belonged to the Interior Ministry's anti-crime unit—was stationed in Tripoli’s zoo to provide security for the animals. It was a quiet existence compared to most security roles in the city; while others battled drug dealers and questioned suspected spies, Said’s men spent a lot of time helping the zookeepers tend to the animals. But as Libya’s migrant crisis worsened, his brigade’s remit was expanded to include immigration and the relaxed workload quickly came to an end.

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Now Said and his men run a holding cell in one of the zoo’s empty offices and make frequent raids on boatloads of migrants setting off from Tripoli’s beaches for Europe. Unlike most militamen in Libya, Said dresses in civilian clothes and doesn’t visibly carry a weapon. After the spider monkeys, Suleiman showed us the lions and then a fox that looks like he’s seen better days. He told us about how one of the white tigers came down with an illness and how a member of his brigade stayed with a camel for three days, acting as a midwife to help it get through a difficult birth. These aren't postings you'd usually associate with the machine gun-laden Libyan militiamen whose photos tend to crop up in the Western media.

Said took his time showing us each cage but his mood seemed to lift as we went deeper into the zoo. It felt like we provided him with a welcome break from the day-to-day headache of wrestling with Libya’s endless flood of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants.

One of Suleiman's militia members with the zoo's lions

Hundreds already pass through Said’s brigade HQ every week, and he said the problem is only getting worse. "The increase has been unbelievable," he said. "It seems like every time we deport ten migrants, a hundred come into the system. It’s because there’s nobody guarding the borders. It’s so easy to come back in."

According to the UN, the number of migrants leaving Libya in boats bound for Europe has increased six folds over the last year, with 4,619 leaving this September compared to 775 in the same month last year. The EU agency Frontex said that the country has become "the favorite" jumping off point for migrants wanting to get into Europe, with migrants traveling thousands of miles in order to make the boat journey from Libya’s shores. In fact, the thousands of detainees who are locked up in Libya’s various detention centers hail from many nations, like Syria, Mali, Chad, Niger, Somalia, and Egypt.

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The influx is just one symptom of many that have affected Libya in its post-revolutionary failure to rebuild. In the two years since the end of the 2011 civil war, the country hasn’t managed to create an effective security force or agree on a constitution. Border security is almost non-existent in the country’s southern region, and ideological militias now control vast swathes of the country.

While the chaos is a cause for despair for most Libyans, the administrative turmoil is a golden opportunity to make some serious money for gangs that specialize in smuggling people. When we went to the zoo’s holding cell, we met 17 bored-looking detainees. The lucky ones were perching on a couple of battered-looking sofas and the others sat on the floor around the edge of the room.

Each had been issued a can of Pepsi Max and a small bottle of water. They’ve all been picked up at various checkpoints by patrols in the local area that day and all appear to be in good health. Said said that detainees normally aren’t kept overnight and that, at the end of the day, they're either released or sent on to another detention center.

One of the many migrants staying at the detention center

For those who are sent on to different detention centers, there's every chance that their situation will become unpleasant. Earlier this year, Amnesty International visited seven migrant holding centers. On their visiting spree they found that legitimate asylum seekers and refugees were being systematically detained for indefinite periods and came across evidence of torture and mistreatment. Detainees told Amnesty that they’d been subjected to beatings with hose pipes and electric cables, and in two detention centers there were reports of detainees being shot with live bullets during riots.

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A couple of Ghanaians said they are legitimate migrant workers but didn’t have their papers on them when they were picked up by a patrol. Said said they’ll probably be freed when their boss turns up with the documents. A number of the others said that they paid smugglers to be secretly transported to Libya’s Mediterranean coast. They were preparing to be transferred to another detention center and eventually deported.

Abdulrahman Ali, another migrant, told me that he had paid one set of smugglers the equivalent of around $350 to take him across the Sahara in the back of a pickup truck. The trip from Niger to Sebha, the biggest city in southern Libya, took four days, and when he got to Sebha he paid another gang a similar amount to drive him to Tripoli.

Another detainee said that he had paid about $800 to be smuggled to Tripoli from Egypt. For those who want to continue their journey and head to Europe, the price tag is steeper. According to Said, those who make the boat voyage from Libya to Italy will pay smugglers $5,000 for the dangerous journey, which usually takes place in an overcrowded boat with an inexperienced captain. This month alone, hundreds of migrants have died attempting the journey. On October 3, 359 died when a ship capsized off the coast of Lampedusa and 34 drowned in Maltese waters a few days later. Both ships departed from Libya.

A lion in Tripoli zoo

"It’s impossible to catch the smugglers," explained Said as we walked back to his office. "They take the money then keep their distance—they’re never on the scene when we conduct a raid."

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Said and his men respond to calls from locals who tip them off when they see suspicious boats heading off from nearby beaches, and sometimes they detain as many as 150 migrants in a single raid. He said the situation is unsustainable and the high numbers of migrants flooding into the country are already overwhelming officials who are meant to be managing the problem.

"Sometimes we see the same illegal migrants being picked up by street patrols twice in one month," he said. "I’ve got no idea how they get back on the streets."

The recent series of migrant boat accidents has prompted Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta to say he won’t let the Mediterranean become a "sea of death." Both Letta and the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat have asked for more EU funds and have called for the problem to be addressed at the next European Council meeting on October 24.

Sitting in the zoo’s office, Said brooded over the possible intervention from behind piles of paperwork and identification documents. He wasn't not optimistic but said he’ll welcome any efforts from outsiders to help secure the country’s borders. "We need planes, boats and off-road vehicles," he said. "If we get enough help, then maybe this place can go back to being a normal zoo again."

Follow Wil on Twitter: @bilgribs

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