Abdoulaye Kaba never had a chance to cross the Mediterranean to find work as a mason. Trapped in a Libyan jail, he called a Senegalese consulate from a smuggled mobile phone.
“There were days when no water came,” the six-foot 28-year-old said at the airport in Dakar, Senegal, on Feb. 27 after his release from two months in jail in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city. “We knew that the only solution was to alert the government to our situation.”
Since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has turned into a battleground for rival militias including Islamic State, the militants that declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. That’s made an already perilous journey for undocumented immigrants seeking to reach the European Union even more hazardous.
Kaba and about 130 others in the jail were flown to Dakar in the largest airlift of migrants to the West African nation since 2011, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.
Kaba left Senegal Oct. 25 and traveled 17 days through the Sahara desert, crossing Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to reach Libya, where he said he worked as a mason for about a month to fund the voyage to southern Europe. Libyan police arrested him on Dec. 15 for being in the country illegally.
Aside from the dangerous sea route, immigrants now face the possibility of being captured by feuding groups before they can make the crossing. Some smugglers have abandoned migrants in Libya or at sea after taking their money. More than 200,000 people from Africa and the Middle East have been repatriated from Libya since 2011, according to the IOM.
The police took Kaba’s documents, some of his clothes and stole his money, Kaba said. Authorities fed five people once a day with food that was meant for three inmates, he said.
Another 270 Senegalese in the prison in northwest Libya started the trip home March 5, taking buses to the Tunisian border, according to the IOM. They may arrive in Senegal next week. More than 130,000 people, mostly from Eritrea and Syria, made the journey across the Mediterranean to Italy last year, according to the Italian government and IOM. About 4 percent were from Senegal.
About 500 Senegalese attempted to cross in to Italy by sea last month, according to the IOM. Only Somalia, Eritrea and Gambia had more citizens attempt the journey.
“The conditions they were living in were very bad,” said Jo-Lind Roberts, the IOM’s director in Senegal, after meeting with repatriated migrants. “Compared to migrants I’ve spoken with six or eight months ago, there’s possibly more fear” about the journey now, she said.
Immigrants use Libya as a transit point because of its proximity to Europe and its porous borders. About 300 have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to the IOM. Last year, 3,000 died in the crossing.
Jamal Zubita, head of Libya’s foreign media office and a leader in Misrata, didn’t answer calls to his mobile phones. Saleh Abu Dabus, an official at the immigration center in Misrata, said by phone that about 800 immigrants are being held in Misrata for being illegally in the country. At least 200 were sent back to Senegal through Tunisia last week, he said.
Fighting between militias in the west in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and in the east in Benghazi has left much of the country of about 7 million people in disarray and without control over government services such as policing and immigration. This has compounded the danger for migrants, Salah al-Din, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said.
Egypt warned immigrants this week not to head to Libya for work or as a transit point because of the “proliferation of armed terrorist groups and the imminent dangers,” the Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. The Islamic State released a video last month where it showed the purported beheading of 21 Coptic Christian workers from Egypt in Libya.
While the economy in Senegal expanded 3.5 percent last year,unemployment is 26 percent, according to the government. More than 100,000 Senegalese have left the nation of 14 million people in the past five years because of a lack of jobs, Sory Kaba, who manages Senegal’s foreign ministry’s program for citizens abroad, said in an interview.
Senegal has a gross domestic product of about $1,000 per capita, below the $4,808 per capita figure in Bulgaria, the lowest of the 28 European Union members, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Norway and the European Union are financing the return of the Senegalese immigrants, which is being coordinated by the governments of Libya, Tunisia and Senegal. The IOM is working to repatriate migrants from Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Togo and Sudan from Libya.
At Dakar’s airport, the 130 men clutched white plastic bags with food, toiletries and an envelope of cash from the Senegalese government. Kaba, who made the first calls for help from the Libyan jail, told others not to make the same mistake.
“I would advise them not to go,” he said as he waited to have his papers stamped. “In Libya, there is a lot of aggression.”