Osman Toure was in pain from repeated beatings and torture when he called his brother’s cell phone number.

Toure stated in August 2017, “I’m in Libyan prison,” in the August 2017 call. “They will execute me if I don’t pay 2,500 dinars within 24 hours.”

Toure’s family quickly transferred $550 to free him from the Libyan government detention center. Toure was not released. Instead, he was sold and kept in slavery for four years.

Toure is one of the tens of thousands who have suffered torture, sexual violence, and extortion by guards at Libyan detention centers. This center is a major hub for migrants fleeing poverty, wars in Africa, and the Middle East in search of a better life in Europe.

The 25-year old Guinean and two dozen other migrants spoke to The Associated Press aboard Geo Barents, a rescue ship operated by Doctors without Borders in Mediterranean off Libya. Over the past four year, most had been detained in trafficking warehouses or government detention centers in west Libya.

These 60 migrants fled Libya in two unsuitable boats on Sept. 19, and were rescued by the Geo Barents a day later. The AP also received testimonies from many other migrants collected by the aid group MSF in recent months.

Since 2015, the European Union has sent 455million euros to Libya. This money was mainly channeled through U.N. agency agencies. It is aimed at strengthening Libya’s coast guard, strengthening its southern border, and improving conditions for migrants.

According to a 2019 AP report, however, large sums were diverted to traffickers and militiamen who exploit migrants. The Coast guard is also complicit in turning migrants captured at sea to detention centers, either under agreements with militias or making demands for money to allow others to go.

This practice is not stopping. U.N.-commissioned investigators stated in a 32-page report last Wednesday that “policies meant for migrants to return to Libya in order to keep them away European shores eventually lead to abuses,” including crimes against humanity.

Many thousands of migrants have crossed Libya to reach Europe. A lucrative trafficking industry has thrived in Libya, a country that is without a functioning government and split over the years between rival administrations in both the east and west. Each of these administrations was backed by foreign governments and armed groups.

Most of the migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa. They claimed that their detention center guards beat them and tortured their families, before extorting money from their loved ones in return for their freedom. There were evidence of both recent and old injuries on their bodies, as well as bullet and knife wounds on the backs, arms, and faces.

The Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration runs the detention centers. It is managed by the Interior Ministry and Libya’s interim authority. They took power earlier in the year under U.N. auspices, to hold national elections by the end. According to U.N. investigators and migrants, the fact that notorious militias are still in control on the ground is a matter of concern.

According to U.N. reports, “Migrants are held indefinitely without the opportunity to have their legality reviewed. The only practical way to escape is to pay large sums to the guards or engage in forced labor or sexual favors within or outside of the detention.”

Spokespersons for Libya’s government and Interior Ministry, coast guard, directorate, and directorate did not return phone calls or respond via email to messages seeking comment.

Toure, the youngest brother of seven children, was abandoned by his father. He said that he saw others from Kindia, Guinea, make it to Europe as a child and help their families get out of poverty.

In March 2015, he started his own trip and took odd jobs to pay the bills. He claimed that he was held captive by traffickers for several months in Niger and Algeria before crossing into Libya in April 2017.

Four months later Toure set sail from Libya to escape the war. However, he was intercepted by Libya’s coast guard and returned to Tripoli. He and others tried to flee the port but were stopped by security forces who took them to Zawiya’s al-Nasr Martyrs Detention Center.

This was when the torture began. He described how guards would whip his bare feet and hang him upside-down. Sometimes, other migrants were forced to participate or offered incentives.

Toure stated, “A migrant from Ghana refused beat us but there was a Cameroonian that was really cruel.”

Six guards approached him during his second week in prison. One of them slapped him on the right side. He was kicked by the rest. He was then given a cellphone and told to call his family.

Ten other prisoners were also forced to comply. In the following days, three were removed by the guards. He said that he doesn’t know what happened to them.

The money was sent by relatives of captives via Western Union or an informal system that allowed them to transfer funds directly to the traffickers. This coordination was done with the guards. Some cases, such as Toure’s, saw relatives sending money to detained migrants and the guards taking them to withdraw it.

Three days after the call, Toure was removed from his cell phone. He believed he would be free to walk away. Instead, the guards sold his freedom to a Zawiya trafficker. He was enslaved and worked in the warehouse of the trafficker for the next four-years.

His luck finally turned in September, when his wife, the trafficker, took pity on him. She persuaded her husband that he would be freed. He was soon on board a small inflatable boat along with 55 others who were trying to cross the Mediterranean.

The boat was overloaded and did not make it very far. The Geo Barents rescued the people onboard 48 nautical miles from Libya’s coast. They were then taken to Sicily where they were allowed to dock on September 27 by the Italian authorities and allow the migrants to apply for asylum. If they are refused, they could be sent back to their homelands.

Toure and other migrants claimed that, in addition to cruelty, there was also racism behind the abuses they suffered in Libya. According to the U.N., Black sub-Saharan Africans are likely to receive harsher treatment than other people.

Toure stated that Libya is not a safe haven for Black Africans.

Libya’s security forces had the opportunity to collect payment at the point of arrival at one its ports from migrants trying to reach Europe.

Some, especially Arab migrants, were relieved to be released after the ordeal, provided they paid their fees. Waleed, a Tunisian told the AP that he bribed four guards at Tripoli’s port and was released. He was also taken to detention centers three times more. There he discovered a way of getting enough money for the guards, and was then released.

Mohammed, a Moroccan national, claimed he was also released from port in 2020 after handing over 3,000 dinars ($660). Out of concern for their safety, both men did not give their first names.

According to U.N. statistics, the Libyan coast guard has intercepted around 87,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea over the past year. According to U.N. Migration agency, only 10,000 migrants are currently in detention centers. This raises concerns about the possibility that others may be in the hands criminal groups or traffickers.

Some people don’t have the money to pay bribes. Mohammed Salah (20-year-old migrant hailing from the Ivory Coast) told the AP that he was captured and returned to Libya in January 2020. He did not have the $3,000 ($660) he was required to be freed.

After they argued about the bribe, he was beat at the station by police officers and left with a broken leg. He claimed that he was enslaved for more than a year by a trafficker after he was handed over to detention center guards.

After being arrested in early January, Valentin Najang from Cameroon was taken into custody at the Zawiya prison. According to the 18-year old, guards beat him and other migrants repeatedly with plastic tubing and sticks. He once saw two guards beating a young Mauritius migrant unconscious. His family paid Cameroonian Francs 500,000 (more than $880) to free him after he was detained for a week.

The question of who is responsible for the abuses committed against migrants lies at the heart of these cases. Although the U.N. did not name any suspects, it stated that more investigation was needed to determine who was responsible.

However, migrants and others in Libya claim that the issue is simple: It’s the militias or warlords who have made many areas of government more powerful.

A former official from the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration spoke anonymously to avoid reprisals.

Mohammed Kachlaf is the leader of the militia. He was sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council in 2018. They called his network “one the most dominant in migrant smuggling, and the exploitation for migrants in Libya” in 2018.

Zawiya’s Coast Guard Unit is commanded and managed by Abdel-Rahman Milad. He was also sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council in 2018 for human trafficking. U.N. experts stated that Milad and the other coast guard members were “directly involved in sinking migrant boats using guns.” Milad denied any connection to human smuggling.

A militia headed by Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli controls Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighbourhood, which is home to the same-named detention center. Although Amnesty International accuses him of war crimes, he was subsequently named the head of the government’s Stability Support Authority with greater arrest powers.

The former Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration official stated that “It’s a well-connected mafia, with influence in every corner of the government.”