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Syrian refugees in Libyan prisons: Hostages for ransom

In Libyan prisons and detention centers, thousands of people—including hundreds of Syrians—face abuse and extortion after being caught trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

12 April 2022

PARIS — In mid-2021, Hassan Abu Ayoub (a pseudonym), left Daraa city in southern Syria for Libya aiming to cross the Mediterranean Sea from there to Europe, only to end up in the prisons of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU).

Abu Ayoub, 27, first flew from Damascus to Benghazi’s Benina International Airport, in eastern Libya. From there, he made his way by a desert road to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, hundreds of miles to the west. In the capital, he agreed with a smuggler to take him from the city of Zuwara, a key embarkation point for migrants hoping to make the perilous sea crossing to Europe, aiming to reach Italian shores. But “after sailing for 16 hours in international waters, the Libyan Coast Guard caught me and the 20 young men who were on the same raft,” he recounted to Syria Direct. 

The Government of National Unity (GNU), established in 2021 as the result of UN-sponsored talks following years of conflict in Libya, is currently holding hundreds of Syrians without trials or a defined length of detention, after they attempted to reach Europe through Libyan waters. As a result, detainees are vulnerable to extortion by “prison brokers,” sources who were held in Libya told Syria Direct.

Libya’s seizure and detention of refugees and migrants comes within the framework of a Memorandum of Understanding with Italy signed in 2017 and extended for three years in February 2020. The agreement stipulates that Italy will help the Libyan Coast Guard stop migrant boats and return those in them to detention centers in Libya. In February, 96 organizations of different nationalities called for the memorandum to be withdrawn because of its disastrous effects, including the mistreatment and extortion of migrants.

A detainee held in Libya today after being caught trying to cross to Europe must pay a sum of money “in order to get an exit document,” according to the head of the Libyan Crimes Watch monitoring organization, Ali al-Assili. For those who can’t pay, their “fate is to stay behind bars, in harsh conditions,” he told Syria Direct

Miserable conditions

When Abu Ayoub was caught trying to cross to Italy last year, the GNU’s Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) took him to Ghout al-Shaal prison, in a neighborhood west of Tripoli. He spent two months there before being transferred to the Bir al-Ghanam prison southwest of the capital, and spent a month there before being released. 

Al-Assili, of Libyan Crimes Watch, estimated the number of Syrians detained in Libyan prisons at “more than 400 people, including women and children.” They, in turn, are among thousands of other detainees, as “in the al-Maya center near Tripoli, there are 1,500 detained migrants from several nationalities, including about 50 children.” In Ghout al-Shaal alone, there are about 3,000 detainees, he added. Al-Assili stressed that, in the prisons and detention centers, “detainees are beaten with sticks and water cannons, and repeatedly humiliated.”

While in Bir al-Ghanam, Abu Ayoub says he endured difficult conditions, and was constantly “beaten and insulted, for no reason.” In the cell where he was held, “the water wasn’t clean, and there was one toilet for more than 300 prisoners, so he avoided using it “until I could no longer stand it.” 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “high temperatures and poor ventilation” deepened detainees’ suffering, he said. “All the prisoners showed symptoms of being infected with the virus,” said Abu Ayoub, “but we didn’t receive treatment from the prison administration, and we weren’t tested.” 

Abu Ayoub’s account intersects with that of Abdullah al-Hourani, 19, who was held in the al-Zawiya and Ghout al-Shaal prisons for a month, from August to September 2021, after being caught trying to cross to Italy. He described what is happening in Libyan prisons as “horrors.” 

Al-Hourani arrived in Libya in June 2021 on a Cham Wings flight, and aimed to continue his journey to “the Netherlands, to meet my mother who has been living there since 2018,” he told Syria Direct

Ahmad al-Ahmad (a pseudonym), another Syrian who was detained for two months in Ghout al-Shaal, from June to August 2021, told Syria Direct he suffered from malnutrition. Food was often limited to “two meals of pasta, in the morning and evening, without other kinds of food,” he said, adding that he lost 22 kilograms while detained. 

Conditions like the ones al-Ahmad, 30, recounts persist in facilities “run by militias, but nominally by the state,” he said. According to a July 2021 report by Amnesty International, “while DCIM detention centers are nominally under the control of the Ministry of Interior, local militias, some of whose members have been formally integrated into the DCIM, often effectively remain in charge of or retain influence over individual DCIM centers in the neighborhoods that they control, with limited central oversight.”

‘Tortured to death’

In August 2021, the first month 19-year-old al-Hourani was detained following his failed attempt to reach Europe, he says he witnessed a Syrian detainee being tortured to death in al-Zawiya prison. The man had “urgently requested the prison administration to take him to the hospital, and instead of responding to him, they beat him to death,” al-Hourani said. His body remained “inside the prison for three days.” 

The victim, according to al-Hourani, was a young man from the town of Nawa in the Daraa countryside. The Horan Free League, a local media organization in Daraa, documented the death of Muhammad Yousef Barakat, a Syrian from Nawa, in al-Zawiya on August 8, 2021. 

“We heard of the death of two others due to medical negligence and torture in al-Zawiya and Ghout al-Shaal,” al-Hourani said. 

He also said he witnessed another incident of torture, this time of a young man from the Daraa coutryside town of Dael, “because his family was unable to pay the ransom” demanded for his release. Prison personnel “took him to a place of theirs, and after they failed to negotiate with his family, threw him off a building. A Libyan person took him to the hospital hours later,” al-Hourani said, putting together both what he witnessed in the prison and information he heard later, after his release. 

Detainees of various nationalities, not only Syrians, were tortured by prison personnel in Bir al-Ghanam, said al-Ahmad. He told Syria Direct that, while detained, he witnessed “the torture of people, some of whom suffered a broken arm or leg.” 

Rather than the prison administration providing treatment to prisoners, detainees “bandaged the wounds of the injured, and splinted breaks,” according to al-Ahmad. “We bought painkillers and bandages from the jailers, at multiple times their price.”

Al-Ahmad attributed the reason for prison officials preventing ill and injured detainees from going to hospitals or clinics to “fear of the violations against them being documented, especially if [the detainees] are treated at centers affiliated with international organizations.” 

For his part, al-Assili said that Barakat was a man of 50 who died “as a result of medical negligence,” but did not deny that migrants, including civilians, were subjected to torture. His organization has documented victims “being subjected to various types of torture and mistreatment,” he said.

Detainees are held “in inhumane conditions, in overcrowded places,” said al-Assili, in addition to “forced labor, and money being demanded in exchange for the release of detainees.” 

In September 2020, Amnesty International published a report in which it quoted the testimonies of refugees and migrants who described “witnessing the death of their loved ones while detained at official DCIM centers or in other places of captivity run by traffickers.” 

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, an independent organization based in Geneva, called on the Libyan government in August 2021 to open an urgent investigation into the conditions of the detention of hundreds of Syrian migrants. It also urged Libya to “put an end to all arbitrary and illegal practices against them, and hold all those involved in these heinous violations accountable.” 

The human rights organization also called on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to “conduct field visits to prisons and and detention centers, where migrants are held, to review the conditions of detention and present comprehensive reports to the relevant United Nations agencies, which should in turn . . . take all possible measures to limit violations of the rights of migrants and detainees in Libya.”

Syria Direct reached out to the DCIM in Libya for comment regarding violations against detained refugees and migrants, but received no response by the time of publication. 

Detainees extorted

After the death al-Hourani witnessed in Ghout al-Shaal prison, he sought to get out, “afraid of a similar fate.” He contacted a prison guard and said he was willing to pay the money to get out, which for him was “$2,800 I collected from a friend living in Tripoli,” he said. 

Prison officials “extort detainees and offer to get them out in exchange for money, either directly or through brokers,” he said. To pressure a detainee, “brokers communicate with relatives to extort them financially.”

Abu Ayoub had a similar experience. He was released in exchange for $2,500 paid to a broker in Tripoli after spending three months in Libyan prisons. 

His family in southern Syria contacted a relative in the Libyan capital, who in turn looked for “a broker to get me out of prison,” Abu Ayoub recounted. “I was released immediately after the amount was paid, but my documents were still held,” meaning that he risked being arrested again if stopped at a security checkpoint. 

So Abu Ayoub was extorted again. In the end, he paid an additional $200 for his documents, he said. 

Brokers fish for clients on social media, according to Khaled al-Ismail, who is from Quneitra province in southern Syria. He said he published a post in a Facebook group of Syrians in Libya, looking for any information about his detained cousin, Eyad. Multiple individuals reached out offering “to look for my cousin and get him out of prison for money,” he said. 

One broker asked for $3,000 “in exchange for helping us get him out,” said al-Ismail, who himself recently arrived in Sweden from Libya. “So far, we haven’t been able to get the money together to get him out.” 

May al-Shami (a pseudonym) told Syria Direct her family is trying to gather $6,000 for the “release of my sister and her husband, who are being held in al-Maya Janzour prison in Tripoli” after they were arrested in December while trying to cross into Europe. 

At the beginning of 2022, al-Shami’s father received an anonymous call from someone “who offered to release them for money,” she said. The broker tried to push the family to respond to his request quickly “by mentioning the prison’s downsides in terms of the treatment of detainees and lack of hygiene.”

The amount of the “ransom” varies from one facility to another. In “al-Zawiya and Ghout al-Shaal prisons, the ransom ranges from $600-1,500, depending on the cell and the jailer,” according to one broker Syria Direct contacted via Facebook, who goes by Assad al-Sahraa, which translates to “Lion of the Desert.” In al-Maya Janzour, “which is run by a demanding group,” the ransom is up to $3,200,” added the broker. 

Brokers coordinate beforehand “with the brigade overseeing the prison,” he said. Payment is made “at the prison gate, and within an hour the ransom is received and the detainee is released.” 

Human rights support absent

In late 2021, the Libyan Coast Guard arrested Iyad al-Ismail, 28, during an attempt to cross to Italy from Libya. He was held under “temporary detention,” according to his cousin Khalid al-Ismail. Al-Ismail told Syria Direct he contacted a Libyan lawyer who told him that “the Libyan authorities are refusing to release him on the grounds that there is no official party to contact to deport the detainees.” 

“The absence of any official Syrian body to work on the release of detainees exacerbates the situation,” said al-Ismail, opening space for brokers and profiteers to extort relatives like him. 

Al-Assili said “the relevant state agencies have the right to detain illegal migrants and to secure voluntary return in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration,” or for the UNHCR to intervene “for them to be registered on the lists of asylum seekers and released.”

But in some Libyan detention centers, “international organizations are not informed of the presence of migrants,” he added, meaning that “detainees are deprived of access to humanitarian assistance and registration on the lists of asylum seekers.”

The director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Fadel Abdul Ghani, said the issue of detained migrants in Libya is “huge,” and there is “UN and international neglect regarding it,” to say nothing of “the blatant absence of the [Syrian political] opposition, especially since it has strong relations with the Libyan Authorities.” 

Abdul Ghani described the detention of Syrians by Libyan authorities without trial or release as an “arbitrary measure,” stressing the need to “present them to the judiciary or facilitate their exit to a third country.” At the same time, he warned against returning them to Syria because of the threat to their lives. 

The UNHCR is responsible, said Abdul Ghani, for communicating with Libyan authorities “to put an end to the tragedy of those being held, and to resettle them in other countries or grant them refugee status on Libyan soil.” 

Like all the Syrians who Syria Direct spoke with about their experience with detention and extortion, al-Ahmad, who spent two months imprisoned last year, remains in Libya facing an uncertain future.

In the end, Syrian detainees are “hostages for money,” said al-Ahmad. “No courts look at our case, no judiciary does us justice—only money gets you out.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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