Migrants after torture and detention in Libya: ‘Better to die on Mediterranean than return’

Article written by journalist Ula Idzikowska for the newspaper One World translated into English

Since 2017, the number of migrants in (both official and unofficial) detention centers has increased. Then Italy and Libya signed an agreement on development cooperation, combating irregular migration, human trafficking, fuel smuggling, and strengthening border security. The Libyan coast guard was given more powers and began to stop more migrant boats.

Since this summer, Malta also has an official deal with Libya. Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela is counting on “better protection, less human smuggling, less criminal activity and above all less loss of life,” he said on a visit to Libya in early July.

Secret negotiations on the deal were already underway last year, the Times of Malta newspaper revealed. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) then asked for a statement, given the long list of accusations against the Libyan coast guard: from human rights violations, including torture, to hindering voluntary rescue operations and links to smuggling gangs.

The Maltese government justified the deal with Libya by referring to the similar agreement between Libya and Italy.

Tudorancea, executive director of the NGO Tama and a psychologist. For three years she has been supporting victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Malta.

Just recently, 27 people were trapped on a Danish tanker, the Maersk Etienne. The Maltese government had asked the ship on August 4 to rescue people in distress who were in Maltese territorial waters. But the Maltese and Danish governments procrastinated after the rescue to find a solution. It was not until 38 days later that the rescued migrants were able to transfer to an NGO rescue ship and finally land in Sicily.

There was a similar story in May: then it took more than a month before 150 migrants were allowed to leave the cruise ship, Captain Morgan. While people on board attempted suicide and hunger strikes, Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela negotiated with the European Commission the conditions for relocation in other EU member states.

In the end, the Maltese Prime Minister had to throw in the towel. The official reason was the threat to the lives of the crew. “There was no mention of the psychological condition of migrants,” recalls activist and blogger Emanuel Delia.


“A number of people have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (also known as PTSD, ed.) during their journey to Europe. For them, the experience on the boat where they are waiting for a decision from the authorities is the same as the one on the boat from which they were rescued and on which they almost died,” explains Tudorancea. “They no longer see any difference between the new destination and the hell they ran away from. Being on a boat is a trigger that constantly brings the trauma back to the surface.”

“Thank you. I appreciate you listening. It helps to talk about this.”

Europe contributes in this way to the development of long-term mental illness in migrants, according to Tudorancea. “At the same time, these people are expected to participate in society. But PSTD can be a debilitating disease that, when combined with psychosocial problems, can lead to antisocial behavior, higher levels of helplessness, depression, and even psychotic disorders. This can negatively impact their ability to integrate.”

Psychological help for migrants with trauma is almost non-existent in Malta. Hassan Ali has to make up his mind. He reiterates that he was lucky because he did not die, not in Libya, not on the Mediterranean Sea.

Hassan Ali is an asylum seeker and as a result has recently been receiving financial assistance, 130 euros a month. He pulls a confirmation of this from his pocket. In the top left corner of the document, I see a photo taken just after his arrival in Malta. A 24-year-old man with a sunken face, gray hair, stubble, and hollow cheeks looks at me. “Thank you,” he says suddenly. “I appreciate you listening. It helps to talk about this.”


Hassan Ali considers it lucky by accident that he was not taken back to Libya. Because that happens, and some of those so-called pushbacks have since been well documented. Amnesty International’s most recent report mentions one such pushback that took place in March, during the same period that Hassan Ali undertook his journey.

Also in March last year, Maltese authorities tried to send migrants back to Libya. They then put that question to the captain of the Turkish tanker El Hiblu 1. The latter carried out the rescue operation and set course for Libya. When people on board realized that the illuminated city they saw was not on a European coast but on the Libyan one, protests broke out.

“In a Libyan prison you can’t avoid rape,” says a woman who experienced this attempted illegal pushback, in a short film on the Free El Hiblu 3 action website.

Another man who was rescued says: “They shoot people in Libya just before your eyes, and you can’t do anything. It’s better to die at sea than to go back to Libya, where you will be beaten to death. And if you survive, the disease will kill you.”

The captain of El Hiblu 1 eventually promised to bring the people he rescued to Malta, as he had also originally announced. But the Maltese authorities were told a different version of the facts: the captain allegedly lost control of his ship in what media and politicians described as a revolt by “pirates” and “kidnappers.”

Protesting against their impending transfer to Malta, three young migrants from the El Hiblu 1 have since spent eight months in prison. The 15-year-old boy from Côte d’Ivoire and two boys from Guinea, aged 16 and 19, face charges including terrorism. They could end up in prison for the rest of their lives.

Malta, meanwhile, continues to resort to dangerous and illegal measures to stop the arrival of migrants by sea, at all costs.

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