In Tripoli, the capital city of Libya, Ibrahim is saving up money so he can try the sea again. He’s 17, a gay Somali who fled his home in Mogadishu when he realised he would never be accepted by his community.
To him, Europe meant freedom and acceptance. Now he’s stranded in a dangerous city, divided between militias: many of which are directly involved in the people smuggling trade. They see foreigners like Ibrahim as easy prey – a black African who can be sold into forced labour or held for ransom – putting him at constant risk of being pulled back into a network of trafficking, abuse and exploitation he might not survive.
Ibrahim, whose name has been changed for his safety, has already tried twice to get across the Mediterranean to Italy, but he was stopped by the EU-funded Libyan coast guard.
For months, he has been asking for evacuation by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Tripoli, but says it won’t return his calls. He says he has seen seen one friend shot, and heard another was killed in the past few weeks, after Libyans tried to abduct them for ransom. Sometimes he sweeps the streets for money, but usually stays inside all day.
To go to sea now costs up to $2,500 (€2,200), depending on which country you’re from: Eritreans usually pay the most, because they have a large diaspora in the West and are perceived as having more money, while impoverished Darfuris pay the least. Ibrahim thinks he would need $2,000, which he’ll try to convince his family in Somalia to raise for him. He says the risk of death, or capture by the Libyan coast guard, is worth taking for that slight shot at a new beginning.
His chances of success have just got lower. In early December, the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and partner SOS Méditerranée announced they were ending their search-and-rescue work in the central Mediterranean, which was already the deadliest sea route for refugees and migrants in the world.