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There's a Libyan Militia Detaining Hundreds of Migrants in Tripoli Zoo

Said Ben Suleiman's brigade – and some lions, camels and spider monkeys – are on the frontline of Europe's immigration crisis.

Said Ben Suleiman, hanging out with some spider monkeys

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

In the wake of Libya’s 2011 revolution, Suleiman’s brigade – who belong to the Interior Ministry's anti-crime unit – were 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, Suleiman’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 Suleiman 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, Suleiman dresses in civilian clothes and doesn’t visibly carry a weapon. After the spider monkeys, Suleiman shows us the lions and then a fox that looks like he’s seen better days. He tells us about how one of the white tigers has come 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.

Suleiman takes his time showing us each enclosure and his mood seems to lift as we journey deeper into the zoo. It feels like we're providing 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 Suleiman’s brigade HQ every week, and he says the problem is only getting worse. "The increase has been unbelievable," says Suleiman. "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 seen a six-fold increase over the last year, with 4,619 leaving this September compared to 775 in the same month last year. The EU agency Frontex says that the country has become "the favourite" jumping off point for migrants wanting to get into Europe, with migrants travelling thousands of kilometres 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 centres hail from nations as far away as Syria, Mali, Chad, Niger, Somalia and Egypt.

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The influx is just one symptom of many that have afflicted 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 specialise in people smuggling. When we go to the zoo’s holding cell, we meet 17 bored-looking detainees. The lucky ones are perching on a couple of battered-looking sofas and the others sit on the floor around the edge of the room.

Each has 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. Suleiman says 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 centre.

One of the many migrants staying at the detention centre

For those who are sent on to different detention centres, there's every chance that their situation will become unpleasant. Earlier this year, Amnesty International visited seven migrant holding centres. 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 centres there were reports of detainees being shot with live bullets during riots.

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

One migrant named Abdulrahman Ali says that he had paid one set of smugglers the equivalent of around £250 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 says that he'd paid the equivalent of £630 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 Suleiman, those who make the boat voyage from Libya to Italy will pay smugglers $5,000 (£3,095) 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 the 3rd of October, 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.

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A lion in Tripoli zoo

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

Suleiman 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 says 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 says. "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 the 24th.

Sitting in the zoo’s office, Suleiman broods over the possible intervention from behind piles of paperwork and identification documents. He’s not optimistic but says he’ll welcome any efforts from outsiders to help secure the country’s borders. "We need planes, boats and off-road vehicles," he says. "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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