Why you should care
Because it's the most harrowing place for migrants in Libya.
During Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, Abdul Monem was abducted from the side of the road in northern Libya last June. The 37-year-old Sudanese migrant was then hauled to a warehouse in Bani Walid, a former stronghold of the slain dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Crammed into a room with dozens of hostages, Monem’s kidnappers called his friends to extort a $3,000 ransom. They pressed the phone against his ear and began ripping his toenails off with pliers so his friends could hear him scream.
Across the globe, images of sinking boats and dead children washing up on shore have epitomized the migrant crisis. But away from that international focus, Bani Walid has emerged as a hub for some of the most horrific abuses that migrants are increasingly facing while passing through Libya.
For decades, the city was a natural transit for migrants trying to reach the coast to board rickety boats to Europe. Bani Walid is also the base of the Warfalla tribe — one of Libya’s biggest communities, with a population of nearly 1 million — which enjoyed privileges under Gadhafi. But after backing the self-described Brother Leader against an armed uprising in 2011, Bani Walid was marginalized in the new political and economic order.
Four years later, in October 2015, the European Union launched Operation Sophia to destroy smuggling vessels off the shores of Libya. Europe also began training and paying Libyan militias to intercept and return migrant boats at sea. By the end of 2018, 23,000 migrants reached Europe from Libya, a drop from 118,000 the previous year.
If I’m lucky I’ll survive.
Abdul Monem, Sudanese migrant
With little prestige to protect and with smuggling less profitable, militias and gangs in Bani Walid turned to extortion, often leading to the torture and killing of migrants. In 2018 alone, Doctors Without Borders collected the corpses of around 50 migrants a month in the town. Some of them appeared to have died from torture, others from hunger and thirst. In May last year, around 100 migrants busted out of a trafficking ring in Bani Walid. Scores were gunned down as they tried to flee.
For most migrants, avoiding Bani Walid is not an option once they’ve paid a smuggler. Lacking money and local connections, migrants are often transported through the most dangerous and lawless routes. Many of them are abandoned by smugglers in and around the town. What’s more, militias and cartels from Bani Walid sometimes roam other cities to abduct hapless migrants. That’s how Monem was snatched.
Europe has shown no signs that it will reverse its policy of deterrence. The only realistic fix, say experts, is to pressure law enforcement to crack down on kidnappers and invest in the local economy.
“Many Libyans aren’t bothered by smuggling, but they’re disgusted by extortion,” says Mark Micallef, an expert on migration and organized crime in Libya. “That’s where there is an opportunity for law enforcement to intervene.”
That’s easier said than done in a country run by militias. In western Libya, a web of Salafist armed groups — nominally aligned to the internationally recognized government in the capital of Tripoli — have assumed law enforcement responsibilities. Meanwhile, the east and south is controlled by a loose alliance of militias and tribes that are loyal to the septuagenarian Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
To secure money and legitimacy from Europe, both camps have tried to present themselves as bulwarks against migration. But the prolonged battle for Tripoli has them looking for new allies too. That means neither Haftar’s forces nor militias backing Tripoli have an incentive to crack down on traffickers in Bani Walid, which until now has remained an island not under the control of either group.
“The political isolation of the Warfalla tribe is diminishing,” notes Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, which is about to release a report on migrant management in Bani Walid. “Nobody wants to upset them. Everyone wants them on their side.”
Despite the economic hardship in Bani Walid, there is a growing number of entrepreneurs and civil society groups that could offer viable economic alternatives to criminal activity if backed by the EU, say experts. “Bani Walid isn’t just one bad block. Parts of it are quite positive,” stresses Harchaoui. “Just a bit of extra direct investment could easily translate into better integration of migrants into the local economy.”
Local communities have stopped human smugglers elsewhere in Libya. In 2014, civil society groups in the city of Zuwara lobbied the municipality and local militias to crack down on human smugglers and traffickers who were setting migrants up to drown in the sea. But the campaign came at a cost for community cohesion, with smugglers’ families accusing authorities of settling scores or scapegoating their relatives.
Bani Walid could face a similar challenge, because experts suspect that abductors and extortionists don’t work alone. “My educated guess is that they use their family and tribal ties to profit immensely,” says Tarek Megerisi, a Libyan expert with the European Council of Foreign Relations.
After Monem was tortured, his friends struck a deal with his captors to pay $2,000 for his release. But his friends feared that they would be kidnapped if they went to retrieve Monem, so they sent a Libyan to bring him back to Tripoli.
Monem, who spent a total of 20 days in captivity, considers himself lucky despite the ordeal. “Some of the other migrants were electrocuted, but not me,” he says.
These days Monem is looking for work in the southwestern city of Zawiya, a key assembling point for migrants. He hopes to eventually make his way north, before paying a smuggler to board a boat to Europe. Returning to Sudan, he says, is out of the question. Although the country’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir was deposed last April, the economy is still in tatters. And Monem can’t bear the shame of returning to his family with less money than when he left. In his eyes, crossing the sea is the only dignified option.
“If I’m lucky I’ll survive,” he tells me with resignation. “If I’m not, I’ll be in peace.”