Achuil has seen too much for a sixteen year old, but on the day that he speaks to me from detention at the Initial Reception Centre in Marsa a hopeful tone never leaves his voice. In 2013, at the outbreak of the ongoing South Sudanese Civil War, his family fled their home to Sudan. But Achuil couldn’t attend school in Sudan and his family experienced discrimination. Facing possible imprisonment in Sudan and conscription into a militia in South Sudan, he decided to migrate north alone.
Achuil’s time in Libya reads like a horror story. Eight years after rebel fighters overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains in a state of civil war. The government in Tripoli clutches to a tiny fraction of the country. Meanwhile, a patchwork of warring militias dominates the landscape, buying weapons, smuggling oil and people, and running migrant detention centres where rape, torture, and extortion are the order of the day. Human rights abuses against migrants are appalling, pervasive and well documented.
Achuil speaks of his time in Libya with sombre resignation, seemingly unaware of the courage and acumen it must take for a child to navigate that war zone alone. For short periods he worked and was able to send money to his family. Often he was left unpaid. Physical violence was commonplace, the threat of detention, torture, and extortion everywhere.
On Achuil’s first attempt to cross the Mediterranean he was intercepted at sea by a Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) vessel likely controlled by Abdelrahman al-Milad, known as Bija. Bija is a militia leader cum-LCG Commander who has been sanctioned by the UN for people trafficking. According to the UN, Bija’s LCG unit is “consistently linked with violence against migrants and other human smugglers.”
LCG forces took Achuil and his fellow passengers to the Az-Zawiya detention centre. UN investigators deemed conditions at the detention centre “inhumane” and “not suitably equipped to hold migrants,” and stress that women and children in the facility are held in “critical conditions.”
European member states, Malta included, finance, train, and provide assets to the LCG. Well aware that returning people to Libya would violate international laws, EU states have outsourced this responsibility to the LCG. Through the LCG, the EU is funnelling taxpayer Euros to militias along the Libyan coast. That these funds are likely used to purchase arms, that LCG commanders, militia leaders, human traffickers and smugglers are one and the same, matters little in the face of ‘migration management’.
So, funded by our money, Achuil, a child in a war zone, was forcibly rendered by a militia leader to a facility where human rights violations are rife. Facing extortion and deportation to South Sudan, he joined a prison break and fled Zawiya.
On his second attempt to cross the sea, armed men in military fatigues rushed Achuil onto an overcrowded, rubber dinghy. Within twenty-four hours of departing the engine died and the vessel and her human cargo were adrift. When all seemed hopeless the outline of two Sea Watch powerboats emerged on the horizon. Fearing another pushback to Libya, those on board were “very happy at the moment” they realized that these were European rescuers, and Achuil thought to himself, “God has given us a second life.”
That second life would not be easy in coming. With all of Europe’s ports closed to search and rescue NGOs, Sea Watch called in vain for a port of safety. Rough seas drove the vessel to seek shelter in Maltese territorial waters. The nineteen-day standoff that proceeded, making headlines across the world, needs no revisiting. “Europe for us was a dream, and when we came here they kept us in the sea and looked at us like animals,” Achuil recalls.
Holding people, some of them refugees by the strictest legal definition, hostage on a vessel in rough seas while Europe squabbles over their distribution is ethically reprehensible. Achuil, with his English and Arabic language competency, became pivotal on board as a translator and mediator. “We will not forget the Sea Watch people!” he says. “They gave us hope. They tried to keep people strong.”
“I remember the moments when I was in that port. Malta is Europe. The weather was very bad. We were afraid. The people were not safe in the sea, but we were refused.”
On January 9, Maltese authorities finally allowed for the disembarkation of the ‘guests’ aboard the Sea Watch 3. Achuil was immediately transferred to the Initial Reception Centre (IRC) in Marsa, where he remains in detention without any sense of when he will be released or transferred to another country. “When we came inside IRC everything changed. Now I’m in Europe, I want to start school to become a doctor. To play basketball at a good academy. Our dreams are dying. Forty-two days here today.”
“My country is not safe. I hope to go to school, to a good academy. My aunt has malaria. The doctors [in Sudan] don’t have the power to stop that sickness. I will try my best to become a doctor and help my nation.”
For the first time the phone goes silent. My stomach wells up and I swear to myself that I will not cry until I hang up. “What else do you want to ask me?” he breaks into that moment pregnant with injustice.
“What do you want to say to the people of Malta, Achuil?”
“They’re supposed to think about these people that are in this camp. Everyone here has a dream. Think of him as your child, your friend and give him a chance. Maybe one day one of these people will become a doctor and save your life. You don’t know what God is planning for him. Think with your heart. The way we live here, this isn’t a life. I know the Maltese people are good. Let them give us a chance. And we will thank the Maltese people, we will remember that for life.”
“We are black, but our heart is the same like yours.”
Daniel Mainwaring – Foreign Policy Researcher and Sea Watch Volunteer