A teenage refugee claims he was tortured and saw people die “nearly every day” inside a network of Libyan detention centres the British government is helping to fund.
The 18-year-old is the first to speak to British media about his experience after making the perilous trip to the UK and successfully gaining political asylum.
Isaias, not his real name, is one of only a handful of young men from Africa to have refugee status here, after surviving a year of abuse, malnutrition and extortion at a network of 26 Libyan detention centres being part-funded by Britain, mainly through its multi-million pound contributions to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.
His testimony comes after a leading human rights group published a report which claimed the EU’s support for Libya’s anti-migrant policies is contributing to a cycle of “extreme abuse”, including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, extortion and forced labour.
Human Rights Watch said EU institutions and member states are continuing to sustain a network of detention centres characterised by “inhuman and degrading” conditions where the risk of abuse is rife.
Isaias told HuffPost UK that Europe and Britain are turning a blind eye to systemic corruption in Libya where traffickers sell refugees to Libyan police and detention centre officials.
“Of course I am happy to be safe in England but no-one here cares what is going on in Libya. They don’t want to know anything about it,” he said.
“The British government has given Libya money to feed and protect refugees and instead the opposite is happening.
“I’m trying to mix in with local English people but i’m still scared that the traffickers and their agents here will find me or try and get my family back home.”
Isaias left his native Eritrea as a 16-year-old in January 2017 to avoid compulsory military service for the long-standing dictatorship, after he was forced to give up studying because of illness.
“I left my parents and siblings because I did not want to die in the troubles in my country. Eritrea is not safe and there is no work or future for young people.”
He managed to sneak across the border to Sudan where his family paid $6,500 for a local trafficking gang to escort Isaias safely across the country to Libya and into Europe.
“There was a group of us, and we were scared of being abandoned or even killed. After a few days walking we crossed into Libya and the gang gave me and the others up to the local Libyan police on the border.
“At night the police put me in a lorry with lots of others. ... They drove us all to a dirty old building just outside Tripoli. It was a small holding place with a few bare rooms to live in and they made us pay rent for that for the next few months.”
In June 2017 Isaias says he was taken to the capital Tripoli where a notorious people-smuggling gang leader called Yusuf, the “boss off the town”, demanded another $6,500, which Isaias couldn’t pay.
“So he sold me to a militia that were guarding a detention centre in Tripoli where I was kept for three days before being moved to a different camp nearby.
“In total between June and December I was held in four separate detention centres where I saw thousands of people. There are lots of women and young children being held there and the guards beat the children and rape the women.
“The conditions are like being in a nightmare. Everyone is depressed and suspicious and you don’t feel like a human being.”
Isaias spent several weeks at a squalid camp in the desert town of Bani Walid, run by a sadistic smuggler later likened to a Nazi concentration camp guard by Italian prosecutors who jailed him for life in 2017.
Isaias said: “Conditions in all the camps I was in were very bad. Nobody does anything to help, they just want your money or you are nothing.
“People couldn’t breath because of the crowding and there is no ventilation and it is always very hot. There is no sanitation and the bad conditions have made people ill with TB and I have seen people die from it.
“Even I caught TB, but I think it’s because I was a good athlete and strong runner as a child that I survived it and the whole experience.”
After an unsuccessful attempt to escape with fellow detainees Isaias said they were all beaten by guards who starved them for four days.
“They really wanted to slaughter us and some of us were tortured very badly. Every day I was abused, punched and kicked and they made us feel like animals.
“My arms were beaten so bad with sticks that they were broken and I was left paralysed. I couldn’t lift my food to eat or pull up my pants after toilet. It was humiliating and it went on for six weeks before I finally got out.”
Isaias says he arrived in Kent on February 20 last year in the back of a lorry from France, and spent some time at a UK immigration centre before successfully applying for political asylum in the UK.
He is currently unemployed and housed in the north of England.
“I like UK but I miss my family and my home. I want to bring my family here but I’m scared for them because I don’t want them ending up in the camps. They wold not survive it.
“I want to make a life in England and get married and have children here. I want to tell British people about what is happening in Libya and that it is their government that is letting it continue.
“The British government thinks it has given Libya money to feed and protect refugees and the opposite is happening.”
Giulia Tranchina, of immigration lawyers Wilson’s, represents a number of African refugees who have escaped the camps and seeking asylum in the UK.
They include a teenage Ethiopian asylum seeker living in London who is planning to sue the government for its role in funding the centres where he says he experienced physical abuse, extortion and forced labour.
Tranchina told Huffpost UK: “There are at least 5,400 refugees and migrants being detained in these centres in Libya in total, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“Refugees are being kept in a perpetual cycle of unlawful and inhuman detention centres, torture, rape, sale and exploitation in modern slavery.
“By providing money to the Libyan coast guard and authorities, the UK and other EU governments are contributing to a more violent, inhuman and sadist world. The funding provided by the UK and the EU to the Libyan authorities, directly and through the EU Trust Fund for Africa, is fuelling the very illegal trafficking and terrorist practices that we claim to be trying to fight.”
A DfID spokeswoman told HuffPost UK: “The UK Government and EU partners are urging the Libyan authorities to improve conditions in those centres that they are responsible for.
“We have raised the need to respect the human rights of migrants, to ensure the provision of basic services, and to explore alternatives to detention centres.
“The UK provides support to help alleviate the humanitarian situation for the most vulnerable refugees and migrants, through international organisations and NGOs.
She added: “A £5m allocation from a £75m regional migration programme provides health care for migrants with other assistance and protection activities.
“In addition, a two-year programme worth £3.29 million focusses on multi sector humanitarian assistance and building capacity of primary health care services.
“Alongside this, we continue to support the European Union Trust Fund’s work to improve conditions for migrants in detention centres and support alternatives to detention, and provide voluntary humanitarian return and reintegration assistance.”
HuffPost UK was unable to independently verify parts of Isaias’s story.