Libyan Crossroad

Deadly passages to Europe

More than 15,805 people have lost their lives on the Central Mediterranean route since 2014.
More than 700,000 refugees and migrants are currently in Libya. This is their story.


February 2011. An empty structure, just a couple of abandoned buildings in the middle of the desert under infernal heat. The absolute void Suddenly, a marabunta takes shape as it approaches; There are more than 80,000 people fleeing the coming war that goes beyond the borders and capabilities of the Ras Jadir border in Tunisia. Libya and its refugees; the first of a country that, dragged by the Arab springs, would begin to suffer a nightmare of three wars while being demonized by public opinion and media such as the “prison state of the Mediterranean refugees”. That of 2011 was the most atypical war of the three wars in Libya. Never before have things been so clear and simple, and they never would be so again for Libya. That placed that corner of the Maghreb as the main African door to enter Europe.

The Libyan Crossroad is a project about the “deadly passage” to Europe for many refugees and migrants, from Libya, in detention centres in that country, and the impossible crossing in the central Mediterranean to Europe where those who are lucky are rescued and those who do not die, as well as the extreme situation of the Libya devastated by the three wars that it has had since 2011 and that has caused that country for its instability as the gateway to Europe; and the countries of origin, where people from Libya come from, to try to understand their motivations, which pushes them to leave their countries as refugees or as migrants and play their lives, all through different routes from Nine main countries of origin in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Middle East Asia (Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Syria and Palestine).

The project is the long road of suffering and resistance of refugees and migrants throughout this journey.

The conflict

Etchings from the series Los caprichos by Goya

The sleep of reason produces monsters. We have always needed monsters and demons. With them, we are able to justify the unjustifiable, a role that Libya has taken on for us, suddenly becoming the demon for Europe. During a rescue at sea on board the NGO Doctors Without Borders ship Dignity in 2015, the hellish reality experienced and shared by the people being rescued en route from Libya differed completely from the reality of this country and its inhabitants. The inhumane stories one can still hear on the boats are undoubtedly true: human beings are trafficked and tortured. Yet there is also another Libya, where refugees and migrants live freely, some with their own businesses and other stable or temporary jobs.

These two realities co-exist in Libya. The explanation is that the reality of the monsters is a first layer consisting of mainly international mafias, which enter the country primarily through Sabha, a mandatory stop in southern Libya on the route to Europe where the mafias literally hunt down the people passing through there, and this when they do not lock them up in their jails, if we can even call them that. The members of these mafias are not just Libyans. In one of the operations carried out by the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in Tripoli, for example, a Nigerian man was arrested. He was the leader of a mafia network in Tripoli, whose tentacles extend to the home countries of the migrants and refugees, as well as into Europe. He is just one of the many individuals who make up the tapestry of this international mafia.

The second layer exists on a smaller scale. It includes certain people who have held positions of power or still hold them. They are smaller groups connected to families or small militias, which often leads to infighting between them, not to mention the extortion of other groups of people through kidnapping. They hold them and demand they pay a minimum of 300 USD (267 €) in exchange for their release. Then they provide them with boats and departure points for another added fee.

The third layer includes the so-called detention centres, which are under the supervision of the two governments that Libya currently has, with an estimated 22 centres spread throughout the country holding more than 5,800 people.

The map drawn by the United Nations includes a total of 30, although some are no longer operational. Others, meanwhile, have been shuttered by the mafias themselves, such as, for example, the centre in Zauiya, which even suffered an attack by force in a short fight in which the guards, overcome by asymmetrical forces, were impotent to act, and where all the refugees and migrants in the camp were kidnapped. In other detention centres, such as the one in Sabratha, the director of the camp, some time ago, appealed to the international community for food, because he lacked sufficient resources to feed the refugees and migrants for whom he was responsible. Of the 22 that are still operational, a project is underway to close the 15 detention centres under the control of the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al Sarraj and backed by the United Nations. The detention centres operating in the deep south and in the eastern part of Cyrenaica are in areas controlled by the Libyan National Army, under Haftar.

Today, the number of people still abducted by the mafias is unknown.


The first war, the 2011 one, was utterly atypical, different from anything that had come before. Swept up in the so-called Arab Spring in neighbouring Tunisia, popular gatherings and protests against the government of Muammar Gaddafi, which led to a civil war, proliferated. It was the intervention of certain countries (some of which hold conflicting positions in the latest war) that guaranteed the victory of the uprising.

In Bengasi, a massacre was avoided after Colonel Gaddafi’s troops were contained and his men prevented from entering the besieged city. French aircraft then finished off the massive motorised force. On the highway, long lines of destroyed and still smoking tanks and trucks could be seen. The picture was Dantesque. It marked the beginning of the end of Gaddafi’s rule. Misrata was next. The besieged city, which could only be reached by sea, was the dynamite beneath the foundations of the house of cards that was the Libyan regime.

After that, what should have been the first triumphant year of change brought about by Libyan society gradually became an increasingly complex riddle. There was a fight for control of the country, yet, unlike other places, in Libya it was never a sectarian matter. In the elections of June 2014, the government failed to elect a parliament to replace the General National Congress, elected two years earlier. The GNC refused to relinquish power, and the second Libyan civil war began, which continues to this day. Two governments and two parliaments emerged. The official narrative spoke of “Islamists” with headquarters in Tripoli, supported mainly by Turkey and Qatar, and “liberals” in Tobruk, 1,200 kilometres east of the capital, which had international recognition and the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. All of this, in addition to the family feuds for control of Libya and the outside interference of other countries, resulted in ISIS taking Sirte in 2014. Along with Raqqa and Mosul, it was the third capital of the caliphate. The car bomb attacks on two border controls by this group led to the outbreak of the third Libyan war, in 2016.

The 2016 war against ISIS was brutal. More than eighty of the dreaded DOGMAs (car bombs), women wearing explosive belts who surrendered and then blew themselves up and booby traps of all kinds rocked the city until, finally, Sirte was left in ruins once again. The last day of the liberation, some ISIS fighters who said they were going to blow themselves up were burned alive. This signalled the end of the caliphate in Libya, but not the end of ISIS. The next stage involved different clashes between the militias until General Hafter (the strongman of the self-proclaimed Tobruk government) launched an offensive against Tripoli, in April 2019. This new war signalled yet another change of direction, due to the strategic shift of some countries that had once supported the government in Tripoli and on which they now turned their back.

Only one thing in the 2020 Libyan landscape (the war that started in 2014) has changed: for the first time, the feared military drones, most belonging to General Hafter, can be now be heard. While the general controls the skies, he does not have the ground strength to take the longed for capital city of Tripoli, although at first he seemed to be on the verge of doing so.

The experience of all the commanders and soldiers (the majority of Misurata, once again) acquired in the other two wars is one of the main tricks with which the Government of Tripoli National Agreement (executive transition body sponsored in 2015 by United Nations). Libya is now a chess board that faces countries of the European Union, the Gulf, China, Russia, Turkey, Sudan, Egypt and the United States for the control, once again, of natural resources. Those who continue to pay the highest price are civilians. There are already thousands of dead in a country with an uncertain future.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Libya has become the most violent and deadly border in the world: in the last 5 years, 15,805 people have lost their life (the actual number is undoubtedly much higher) after departing from Libyan shores in the attempt to reach European soil, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The country is a failed state where approximately more than half a million of its population (as of 2020) of 6.6 million are migrants and refugees, the most vulnerable groups pulverised by the three wars (one on-going) that have been bleeding the country since 2011. Of the more than 700,000 people currently in the country, only 11,471 have been able to reach Italy. The rest remain trapped in the Libyan inferno as economic migrants, though many of them are, in fact, refugees.

“Refugees” are people who flee armed conflicts or persecution. They find themselves in a life or death situation, crossing national borders in search of safety in nearby countries and, in this way, hoping to gain international recognition of their “refugee” status. They are people who if denied asylum, could suffer lethal consequences.

“Migrants” are people who choose to relocate not because of a direct threat of being persecuted or killed but mainly to improve their lives, seeking new employment, education, family reunification and other opportunities.

The more than 700,00 foreigners who persist in Libya are migrants and refugees who will continue searching for a safer place with a higher life expectancy in the future: either risking their lives in the attempt to reach European shores crossing the Mediterranean Sea or the countries of North Africa. In both cases, as we can see today, they run the risk of being returned to square one.

According to the latest report of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), of the more than 700,000 people in Libya today, 32 per cent are from Niger, 18 per cent from Egypt, 15 per cent from Sudan, 9 per cent from Chad and 8 per cent from Nigeria. The remaining 18 per cent includes 39 additional nationalities. The three regions of origin are sub-Saharan Africa, representing 49 per cent, followed by North Africa, with 34 per cent, and the Middle East and Asia, representing 17 per cent.

According to a 2019 UNHCR report, only 52,900 refugees and registered asylum seekers were living in Libya, mainly from Syria (43 per cent) and Sudan (21 per cent), although obviously the number of unregistered persons is much higher, since, of these more than 700,000 people, many are also refugees.

Sub-Saharan refugees and migrants desperately attempt to disembark from the inflatable boat in which they have travelled for several hours, and from which they are now being rescued on the Mediterranean Sea by members of the NGO Doctors Without Borders.
Refugees and migrants inside a bus at a detention centre in Tripoli run by the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency, part of the city government.
Syrian and Libyan refugees (210 in all) rescued by members of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms, off the Mediterranean coast of the Libyan city of Sabratha, after their three wooden boats encountered problems. In the image, a woman is in shock.
Refugee and migrant women and children in the detention centre in Garabulli.
One of the refugees and migrants on board the rescue ship Bourbon Argos, also belonging to the NGO Doctors Without Borders, prays, offering thanks for being rescued.
A member of the Doctors Without Borders crew spray paints the Word RESCUED on a now empty boat.
One of the rescued refugees and migrants climbs aboard the NGO Doctors Without Border rescue ship Dignity.
A member of the NGO Doctors Without Borders carries a refugee and migrant youth who has fainted aboard an inflatable boat during a rescue operation on the ship Dignity 1 on the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya. 373 migrants (from countries such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Mali and Niger), including 62 women and 10 children, were rescued in international waters off the shores of Libya.
Food being handed out in a male-only detention centre in Milita, near Zauiya.
Refugees and migrants in the main courtyard of the Garabulli Detention Centre waiting for food to be distributed.
A Syrian boy cries out in pure panic while a crewmember urges passengers to stay calm during a rescue operation on the Mediterranean Sea carried out by members of the NGO Open Arms.
Refugees and migrants on the crossing from Libya to Europe on board fragile inflatable boats used to reach their destination.
Refugees and migrants on board the Bourbon Argos while blankets and food are handed out for the first night on the passage to Italy.
Refugees and migrants rescued on the high seas by members of Doctors Without Borders.
Writing on the wall in a detention centre in Misrata.
Refugees and migrants’ telephones confiscated at the detention centre in Misrata.
Intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard just a few miles off the coast, refugees and migrants wait in the Port of Tripoli to be transferred to a detention centre; from there, they will be repatriated back to their home countries.
After two days on board the Doctors Without Borders ship Bourbon Argos, some refugees and migrants dance in celebration of their arrival to Calabria. Once on land, they will be transferred to detention centres on European soil.
Refugees and migrants await deportation in the headquarters of the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency. In the background, the doors to one of the prisons where they were held for 24 hours before being deported to their home countries can be seen.
Some 250 refugee and migrant women with their children in the detention centre in Sabratha gather to fill water bottles from large decanters. When this photograph was taken, the director of the centre was requesting the cooperation of the international community to obtain food.
Members of the Libyan Red Crescent treat an exhausted refugee and migrant in the Port of Tripoli, picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard, as he and others wait to be transferred to a detention centre.
Refugees from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Niger and Nigeria waiting to be hired for temporary construction work in Zuara.
Samir, 8, from Somalia, looks out the window of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue vessel Astral, while other refugees and migrants rest on their way to Lampedusa during a storm. With up to 65 km-per-hour winds, the storm, undoubtedly, would have killed them all. Libya, with its 1.770 kilometres (1.100 miles) of shoreline plunged in chaos, has become an illegal immigration hub on the way to Europe. The migrants embark in rickety boats on hopeless crossings to Lampedusa, some 300 kilometres from the coast.
A migrant refugee asks for help from his boat on the central Mediterranean route.
Remains of a boat used by human traffickers on the central Mediterranean route, on the Zuara coast, one of the three main departure points for refugees and migrants.
Two families committed suicide in Sirte by triggering two ISIS DOGMAS or car bombs. This attack killed at least 12 combatants and injured 60 people. At the time of the image, a third car bomb was on its way but was intercepted before it could reach its destination. The official estimates indicate that the number of deaths during the offensive was around 500. In all, 87 DOGMAS exploded in the final weeks of the war (2016).
Family inside a car coming from Sirte, a city at that time controlled by ISIS. In the image, the military police checkpoint and Brigade 166, in Abu Qurayn, where ISIS launched a coordinated attack with the Albagla point, and which signalled the start of the Sirte campaign, can be seen (2016).
A comrade holds a wounded fighter’s hand, in a field hospital, during the Battle of Sirte against ISIS. The soldiers, mostly young and inexperienced, were mainly from the Libyan city of Misrata (2016).
A mortally wounded solider from the “Shelba” unit, allied with the Libyan government and backed by the UN, is moved after being shot on the front line, in Tripoli’s Salah al-Din neighbourhood. The fighting broke out in April 2019, when the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army under Field Marshal Khalifa Hafter launched an offensive to take Tripoli (2014-2020).
Fighters in Sirte, a city destroyed by the bombings. Years later, it would become one of the capitals of the ISIS caliphate (2011).
Protests in Bengasi with the image of Omar Al-Mujtar, hero of Libyan independence, call for international intervention and the imposition of a no-fly zone, just before Gaddafi’s troops arrived at the gates of the besieged city and were stopped by French aircraft (2011).
Positions on the Tripoli front between Tripoli government and Tobruk government forces, as the latter attempt to take the capital (2014-2020).
A fuel tank is in flames after the explosion of Grad rockets launched by Gaddafi’s army, in the port of the besieged city of Misrata. Meanwhile, a soldier makes the victory sign and screams “God is great” before the uncertainty of imminent death caused by more rockets or the explosion of the tanks engulfed in flames, which ultimately did not happen (2011).
Soldiers fire at ISIS jihadists during fighting in Sirte (2016).
The final days of the Battle of Sirte, where Gaddafi was hiding before his death, and which signalled the end of hostilities (2011).
A soldier at the time of his death caused by the explosion of a DOGMA (ISIS car bomb), in a field hospital during the Battle of Sirte (2016).
“Shelba” unit fighters, allied with the Libyan government and backed by the UN, aim at enemy positions on the front line in Tripoli’s Salah al-Din neighbourhood (2014-2020).
A child’s room destroyed in the fight against ISIS. What had been a crib can still be seen (2016).
A sniper’s telescopic view pinpoints Hafter’s nearby positions on the front line, in Tripoli (2014-2020).
Fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA), an executive transition body backed in 2015 by the UN, cover the body of an ISIS militant in district 2. Among ISIS’s ranks were a large number of sub-Saharan Africans, many of whom did not understand Arabic and could not read the Koran (2016).
A Tunisian military official tries to hold back the avalanche of immigrant workers, mostly Egyptian, but also Bengali, sub-Saharan African, Turkish, Tunisian and Libyan, at the Ras Ejder checkpoint in Tunis, when nearly 80.000 refugees tried to escape the war (2011).
A sniper with a homemade rifle outfitted with a DShK machine gun barrel fires at ISIS positions in Sirte (2016).
Soldiers use masks to be able breathe in the heavy gunpowder air produced by the multitude of shots fired inside a building during very intense and drawn-out fighting against ISIS, in Sirte (2016).
Boy with his father in Bengasi Square where posters are hung with the faces and names of people arrested or disappeared by the feared muhabarat (intelligence services) (2011).
Celebrating the liberation of Sirte from ISIS’s clutches. A last group of jihadists buried under the rubble threatened, that day, to blow themselves up. The soldiers had no choice but to douse the entire area in gasoline.
Bokoro: many families depart from this region on the route through Libya to Europe in search of a better future (Chad).
One of the daughters of Palestinian Yahya Hasanat, 37, cries over his death caused by shots fired by Israeli troops during the Great March protests (Gaza).
Children are always the most vulnerable in war, where decisions always conditioned by their parents shapes a future without any options (Bangladesh).
Bengalis and Egyptians that were able to escape Libya in 2011, in a refugee camp in Ras Ejder, wait in line to receive food (Tunisia).
Palestinians enveloped in smoke from burnt tires look up at the sky in search of gas shells being fired at them. They try using the smoke to reach the limits of the fence, during the Great March; still, in each protest, the participants suffer a high rate of deaths and injuries (Gaza).
The army of Bashar al-Assad bombarded several houses and bakeries, where people had been standing in line since dawn to buy bread. As a result, 50 people died and 197 were injured, most of them children. Two brothers are treated for machine-gun wounds at Dar al-Shifa Hospital, between Al-Shaar and Taril Al-Bab (Syria).
A woman tries to console her son in Borno. Many of these families flee the violence perpetrated by the group Boko Haram, taking the Libyan route in the attempt to reach Europe (Nigeria).
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, in Kutupalong refugee camp. There are currently more than a million refugees in this country, and more than 25.000 false passports have been found, which are used to get them to Europe, as well as to other regions throughout the world (Bangladesh).
Sudanese and Southern Sudanese children (there are over 2.2 million Southern Sudanese refugees in Sudan) in a school in El Daein, in Darfur (Sudan).
Mohamed (at the wheel), a pharmacist from Hajin (Deir ez-Zor), with his wife and their three children (their son Majed and daughters Asma and Esra), left the city where they were living under ISIS control, during fighting against Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the final battle that signalled the disappearance of the caliphate (Syria).
Ramses Station, in Cairo, departure or transit point for many Egyptian migrants heading to Libya in search of economic opportunities or as a gateway to Europe (Egypt).
Members of the NGO Doctors Without Borders weigh a little boy in a mobile clinic in the region of Bokoro (Chad).
A boy is a given an oral polio vaccine in Borno. In recent years, Boko Haram, an ISIS-affiliated terrorist organisation, has attacked employees of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI, funded by an extensive range of public and private donors), mimicking the Taliban’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 2012, when nine vaccinators were gunned down, workers involved in anti-polio campaigns have chosen to travel through the country unannounced (Nigeria).
A woman feeds her child in a health centre in Borno. A large number of people here suffer from acute malnutrition due to the severe humanitarian crisis caused by the violence unleashed by the Boko Haram terrorist organisation (Nigeria).
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with a sniper, in a house situated on the front line in Deir ez-Zor, during the final battle before the fall of the ISIS caliphate (Syria).
An unconscious Palestinian, wounded by a sniper on the front line of the fence, is quickly carried in his friends’ arms. He died a short time later. (Gaza).
Sudanese families, most coming from Libya, explain that they were held in detention centres, at the UNHCR refugee camp in Agadez (Niger).
Syrians in the Al Hawl refugee camp, coming from the city of Deir al-Zor, from where they had to flee due to the fighting that ravaged the city for several years (Syria).
A Bangladeshi family in a tuk-tuk, the most commonly used transport because of its low cost. Bangladeshis have had the highest rate of migration to Libya from Asia/the Far East, since 2011 (Bangladesh).
Khan al-Ahma school in a Bedouin village. The school, where children without a future learn, is faced with a demolition order issued by the Israeli Supreme Court (Occupied Palestinian Territories).
Toyoba (dressed in blue) is 16 years old and has seven siblings. Despite her young age, her parents have decided to marry her off because they can’t afford to feed all their children: they are refugees without a future under current conditions. They live overcrowded in the Kutupalong refugee camp (Bangladesh).
Babies being treated in the hospital maternity ward of the NGO Doctors Without Borders in Kario, region of Darfur (Sudan).
A mother feeds her child suffering from malnutrition in Bokoro hospital, managed by the NGO Doctors Without Borders (Chad).
Nigerian traffickers who drive pickup trucks carrying refugees in Agadez, about to leave for Libya. Many come from Nigeria (Niger).
Relatives and friends burying Palestinian Nassar Abu Tayem, 22, killed by a bullet during the Great March of Return at the security fence with Israel while demanding his right to return to the houses and land from which his family was expelled 70 years ago. More than 254 Palestinians died and 23,600 were injured, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Gaza).
NGO Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kario camp, Darfur. In the image, a South Sudanese child is weighed during his check-up (Sudan).
Tunisians without any hope of a future, earning barely 300 euros a month on average, and facing overwhelming inflation; their future grows blurry in the search for opportunities (Tunisia).

More information

The Maghreb region, including Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, has become one of the most unstable geopolitical borders of the European Union in the last decade. A vast area inhabited by some 95 million people - eighty percent of them in Algeria and Morocco - and enclosed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara desert. The region separates Southern Europe from the Sahel, one of the most conflictive areas on the planet, with which the Maghreb shares a wide range of structural problems: from poverty to corruption, passing by unemployment, economic and social inequalities, the technological gap, educational and infrastructure underdevelopment, food insecurity and water scarcity, which previsions point at one of the most severe in the world by 2040.

In this context, the privatization of war proliferates and transnational Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC) find spaces to act with impunity. These companies make up the war business, which is fostered by the international actors involved, and are responsible for massive human rights violations in the region.