The torrential rain flooding the pavement outside was nothing compared with the dark cloud that gathered over the group as we listened to Esther (not her real name) recount her journey from Nigeria, through Niger, into Libya, to reach Italy.
I was prepared to hear about a hazardous sea crossing. That’s that part of the passage that is most frequently recounted in broadcast and print media. But what caught me off guard was the scale of the serial trafficking and abuse suffered by this orphaned seventeen year old.
The journey to the coast of Libya was a relay race, with Esther the human baton being passed – sold – from one person to another.
She showed a scar on her shoulder, the result of a beating. She spoke of three weeks spent with little food.
She was told to pay back twice the amount that she had been bought for in order to be set free by one captor. Attempts were made to extort money from family back home, not possible in her case.
Clothes bought and hair styled, she realised what was ahead. “I can’t do this kind of job.” Her master showed her into a room, she was given condoms and tissues and assured “Don’t worry, the other girls will help you”.
Initially reluctant, six months later, she cleared her ‘debt’ with the help of a local lad and moved on.
Esther is pregnant, carrying the child conceived as a result of being raped by men (after her work as a prostitute was over). As if the trauma of being bought and sold and abused was not enough, a missed period and no access to healthcare has further changed the life of this seventeen year old forever. Five months pregnant she travelled to the seaside. Initially feeling “that sea is too big for me to pass”, some weeks later she stepped on board a boat.
Her grandmother knows she is safe in Europe. But Esther hasn’t told her that in eight weeks time she is due to go into labour.
Esther’s journey took just over a year. While trying to escape from one captor, she lost contact with her initial travelling companion. Later they would bump into each other near the Libyan coast. Tragically her friend died at sea before Esther set off.
Mediterranean Hope staff confirmed that the story was familiar. The Casa delle Culture centre in Scicli offers short term accommodation and support for pregnant girls like Esther while waiting placement in a programme that can look after them.
One such initiative is Mediterranean Hope’s Centro Diaconale “La Noce” in Sicily’s capital city Palermo. A small unit cares for vulnerable women, providing access to health care and language courses, offering safety, security and building the skills and confidence to allow women to become autonomous and able to live independently.
On Lampedusa, we chatted to young men who had recently arrived on the island having been picked up by Italian Coastguard vessels 30km off Libyan shores. They slipped out through the fence that surrounded their ‘hot spot’ – their temporary home on the 20 sq km island while waiting to be transferred to Sicily where they can claim asylum – and walked down to the harbour to hang out and enjoy the cooler breeze.
The men from Nigeria, The Gambia and Senegal explained how they had been sold into the Libyan construction industry to build while paying off their ‘debts’. No one we spoke to had travelled unimpeded to the Libyan coast.
The most benign experience we heard was one young man who described being kidnapped for five months to work as a car mechanic.
The reasons for leaving home and heading towards the fabled promises of Europe were varied. But the one constant was the prolonged horror of the trek north.
— Damian Jackson (@DamianFJackson) 11 April 2017
The International Organization for Migration’s report that describes slave markets in Libya ring true with what we heard last week in Lampedusa and Sicily. The IOM’s chief spokesman in Geneva is Leonard Doyle. He said:
“Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe, have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border. There they become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value.
“To get the message out across Africa about the dangers, we are recording the testimonies of migrants who have suffered and are spreading them across social media and on local FM radio. Tragically the most credible messengers are migrants returning home with IOM help. Too often they are broken, brutalized and have been abused, often sexually. Their voices carry more weight than anyone else’s.”
There’s an urgent need for more publicity across sub-Saharan Africa about the kind of journey that lies ahead for anyone setting off. No one seemed prepared and forewarned that serial trafficking was the norm not the exception.
There’s also a need to question any European government that makes deals with the Libyan government to return people to the state with its unstable administration and multiple groups in charge of different areas of the country. Europe can’t wipe its hands clean while knowing it is returning people to the hell from which they have escaped.
The brutality we heard about – and the incidents of death in Libya – may mean that the deaths at sea are eclipsed by the deaths while being trafficked.
The harrowing tales were tinged with hope. One of the first women to pass through Casa delle Culture centre gave birth and the local community took the child to their hearts. After being moved away, the mother returned to Scicli. Her daughter Sara is recognised on the streets of the town and celebrated.
She is their child.
She is our child.
Having heard her story, Esther’s baby will be our child too.
Alan Meban coordinates the Focus on Refugees website for CTBI and co-led the delegation to Italy.