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World

Why Migrants In Libya Take To The Mediterranean To Escape

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The weather is warm. The seas are calm. So more migrants are piling into boats in Libya and pointing them across the Mediterranean towards Italy. So far this year, thousands have died on the way.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Which raises a question, why? Why would so many people take a journey that they have to know is filled with risk? The answer lies in North Africa's chaos. Many people flee war-torn areas only to reach Libya, where refugees are being kidnapped by gangs and kept in forced labor camps among other things. Some who escape report being tortured and held in prison cells. Videos of these beatings are sent to relatives on social media, and the gangs demand thousands of dollars for their release.

MARTIN: Reuters' correspondent Steve Scherer has been investigating this. I asked him what he learned while he was on one of the boats that tried to rescue these people on the Mediterranean.

STEVE SCHERER: Literally, everyone I spoke to told the same story, which was in Libya they had been kidnapped, held against their will. Most of them, especially the men, had been forced to work without being paid. They were given maybe a piece of bread and some water to eat once a day. And they lived like that, sometimes for years. And so when they got on the boat, you know, for them it was really an escape. It was an escape route.

MARTIN: Steve, who is doing the kidnapping?

SCHERER: Libya is in absolute chaos right now. There's no one government, first of all. There's three governments, at least, vying for power. But beyond the government, there's an organized system for trafficking human beings going through Libya. And that is done by large sort of criminal organizations. They may be based on, you know, certain tribes or things like that. But essentially, it's very organized. I mean, now we're seeing a lot of Bangladeshis who are coming across on the boats, which is somewhat of a new development this year. And what they told me was that they boarded an airplane to go to Libya to work, but when they got there, they were put into forced labor.

MARTIN: So these are Bangladeshis who are leaving their home country because they think Libya is a place of opportunity where they can...

SCHERER: That's right.

MARTIN: ...They can have stable employment.

SCHERER: That's right. And that's how Libya worked up until 2011, when Gadhafi was kicked out of power. I mean, essentially it was a country that had - was fairly - fairly wealthy. So, you know, most of the manual laborers were foreigners. But it worked, you know, they got paid. So now that the state has sort of crumbled and the economy is completely destroyed, the only thing, you know, one of the main industries left is people smuggling.

MARTIN: The European Union knows this is a problem - has agreed to send millions of dollars to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli to try to stop this, to stop the human trafficking at least and open these migrant centers. Is that going to help?

SCHERER: So what they've done so far is pledged money. You know, and Italy is actually sending money over. They've sent - well, they've pledged 10 coast guard cutters to go over and sort of help bolster the Tripoli coast guard so that they can monitor their coast and turn back some of these boats, which they've been doing to an increased extent this year.

What happens is if the Libyan coast guard brings them back to Libya, they're put in detention centers that - every single international organization that has entered into these detention centers that has seen what they're like has condemned them for being inhuman. I mean, they're really bad. People don't eat. You - they see severely malnourished men. They're seeing people who are starving to death, basically, in these detention centers.

MARTIN: Steve Scherer is a correspondent with Reuters based in Rome. Thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.

SCHERER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTE DE L'INCROYABLE AMOUR) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.