African, Syrian migrants in crosshairs of Libya’s war

Migrants walk to meet UN chief Antonio Guterres (unseen) during his visit to the Ain Zara detention center for migrants in Tripoli on April 4. (AFP)
Updated 11 April 2019

African, Syrian migrants in crosshairs of Libya’s war

  • The UN wants to move them urgently to safety

TRIPOLI, GENEVA: They trekked through the Sahara in hope of crossing the Mediterranean to a better life in Europe — but instead ended up in squalid detention centers and are now engulfed by war.

Thousands of African and Syrian migrants and refugees are trapped in Tripoli as a battle for the city draws closer.

The UN wants to move them urgently to safety, but this week only managed to relocate 150 to a protected facility with proper shelter, food and space for children.

So desperate is the situation that one detention center manager said he flung open the doors as fighting drew near.

“They can hear the clashes. And many are really scared,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said of the migrants.

They are crammed into disused warehouses, hangars and prisons where armed groups with no experience of handling refugees guard them, say witnesses and rights reports.

On the northern edge of Africa with a long Mediterranean coastline, Libya hosts more than 700,000 people who have fled their homelands, often trekking through desert in pursuit of their dream of crossing to a better life in Europe.

About 7,000 of them are in detention centers — mostly in Tripoli — where conditions were awful even before they began hearing gunfire and shelling as eastern forces approached a week ago.

Sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes under steel roofs in baking heat and without proper food, water or medical assistance, the detainees wait for a visit by international organizations or the chance of a laboring job, according to visitors, rights groups and UN officials. 

They are seldom allowed out for fresh air, and sometimes given just one meal a day, of pasta or bread, the sources said.

Many of the detainees were captured on arrival through the Sahara, or forcibly returned by patrols stopping their flimsy vessels in the Mediterranean.

‘Terrible deprivations’

Repeatedly warning of their plight, the UN refugee agency UNCHR took more than 150 Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Syrian refugees from the Ain Zara detention center in south Tripoli on Tuesday to its own facility in a nearby “safe zone.”

“Many refugees and migrants in Libya endure terrible deprivations. They are now at grave additional risk,” said Matthew Brook, UNHCR deputy chief of mission in Libya. At Ain Zara, the manager told Reuters he opened the doors on Wednesday to let another 150 terrified migrants into the streets as gunfire drew close. 

Qasr ben Gashir, Gharyan and Abu Salim detention centers are others closest to the front lines, as the LNA forces take southern suburbs of Tripoli.

“I let them go for their safety,” he said.

Qasr ben Gashir, Gharyan and Abu Salim detention centers are others closest to the front lines, as the eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar take southern suburbs of Tripoli.

According to UN figures, there are an estimated 660,000 migrants in Libya, and a further 58,000 classed as refugees or asylum-seekers fleeing home because of violence or persecution.

The UN human rights office has expressed fears the warring parties may use migrants as human shields of forcibly recruit them. It cites unconfirmed reports that some were coerced last year into fighting in Tajoura, just east of Tripoli, which is controlled by pro-militant armed groups.

Haftar’s forces accuse the Tripoli-based government of using migrants and criminals as human shields and fighters — though they have not provided evidence or given details.

“After the end of the battles, we will show this to the world,” spokesman Ahmad Mesmari told Reuters in Benghazi.

Spokespeople for the Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez Al-Serraj and its allied forces, which control the detention centers, did not respond to repeated requests by Reuters for comment on the migrants’ situation.

In past meetings with UN officials, however, they have insisted they are providing adequate conditions.

According to one UN report last December, migrants and refugees in Libya suffer a “terrible litany of violations” by a combination of state officials, armed groups and traffickers. “These include unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention, gang rape, slavery, forced labor and extortion,” it said.

A study last month by the Women’s Refugee Commission, a US-based charity, said refugees and migrants trying to reach Italy through Libya were victims of horrific sexual violence.

The abuse was commonplace along routes through North Africa: At border crossings and check points, during random stops by armed groups, and when migrants were kidnapped and held for ransom, said the report, titled “More Than One Million Pains.”

‘Sand mafias’ threaten Morocco’s coastline

Updated 12 min 2 sec ago

‘Sand mafias’ threaten Morocco’s coastline

  • Unscrupulous construction contractors illegally stripping beaches of sand
  • Beaches and rivers are heavily exploited across the planet, legally and illegally, according to UNEP

MOHAMMEDIA: Beneath an apartment block that looms over Monica beach in the western coastal city of Mohammedia, a sole sand dune has escaped the clutches of Morocco’s insatiable construction contractors.

Here, like elsewhere across the North African tourist magnet, sand has been stolen to help feed an industry that is growing at full tilt.

A report last month by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the global over-exploitation of this resource accuses “sand mafias” of destroying Morocco’s beaches and over-urbanizing its coastline.

“The dunes have disappeared along the entire city’s coastline,” lamented environmental activist Jawad, referring to Mohammedia, on the Atlantic between Rabat and Casablanca.

The 33-year-old environmental activist leads Anpel, a local NGO dedicated to coastal protection.

“At this rate, we’ll soon only have rocks” left, chipped in Adnane, a member of the same group.

More than half the sand consumed each year by Morocco’s construction industry — some 10 million cubic meters (350 million cubic feet) — is extracted illegally, according to UNEP.

“The looters come in the middle of the night, mainly in the low season,” said a local resident in front of his grand home on the Monica seafront.

“But they do it less often now because the area is full of people. In any case, there is nothing more to take,” added the affable forty-something.

Sand accounts for four-fifths of the makeup of concrete and — after water — is the world’s second most consumed resource.


Beaches and rivers are heavily exploited across the planet, legally and illegally, according to UNEP.

In Morocco, “sand is often removed from beaches to build hotels, roads and other tourism-related infrastructure,” according to UNEP. Beaches are therefore shrinking, resulting in coastal erosion.

“Continued construction is likely to lead to... destruction of the main natural attraction for visitors — beaches themselves,” the report warned.

Theft of sand from beaches or coastal dunes in Morocco is punishable by five years in prison.

Siphoned away by donkey, delivery bike and large trucks, the beaches are being stripped from north to south, along a coastline that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.


Siphoned away by donkey, delivery bike and large trucks, the beaches are being stripped from north to south, along a coastline that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.

“On some beaches, the sand has nearly disappeared” in parts of the north, said an ecological activist in Tangiers. “There has been enormous pressure on the beaches of Tangiers because of real estate projects,” he said.

To the south, the UNEP report noted, “sand smugglers have transformed a large beach into a rocky landscape” between Safi and Essaouira. Activist Jawad points to “small scale looting, like here in Mohammedia.”

But “then there is the intensive and structured trafficking by organized networks, operating with the complicity of some officials.”

While the sand mafias operate as smugglers, “key personalities — lawmakers or retired soldiers — hand out permits allowing them to over-exploit deposits, without respect for quotas,” he added.

A licensed sand dredger spoke of “a very organized mafia that pays no taxes” selling sand that is “neither washed nor desalinated,” and falls short of basic building regulations.

These mafia outfits have “protection at all levels... they pay nothing at all because they do everything in cash,” this operator added, on condition of anonymity.

“A lot of money is laundered through this trade.”

A simple smartphone helps visualize the extent of the disaster.

Via a Google Earth map, activist Adnane showed a razed coastal forest, where dunes have given way to a lunar landscape, some 200 km south of Casablanca.

Eyes fixed on the screen, he carefully scrutinized each parcel of land.

“Here, near Safi, they have taken the sand over (a stretch of) seven kilometers. It was an area exploited by a retired general, but there is nothing left to take,” he alleged.

Adnane pointed to another area — exploited, he said, by a politician who had a permit for “an area of two hectares.”

But instead, he “took kilometers” of sand.

Environmental protection was earmarked as a priority by Morocco, in a grandiose statement after the country hosted the 2016 COP22 international climate conference.

Asked by AFP about measures to fight uncontrolled sand extraction, secretary of state for energy Nezha El Ouafi pointed to “a national coastal protection plan (that) is in the process of being validated.”

The plan promises “evaluation mechanisms, with protection programs and (a) high status,” she said.

Meanwhile, environmental activists are pleading against the “head in the sand approach” over the scale of coastal devastation.