Socialist Worker

Refugees from Libya left to die by Nato ships speak out - exclusive

by Patrick Ward on the Tunisia-Libya border
Issue No. 2255

Refugees in the Choucha refugee camp, on Tunisia’s border with Libya (Pic: Meg Rose)

Refugees in the Choucha refugee camp, on Tunisia’s border with Libya (Pic: Meg Rose)

Hundreds of refugees from Libya were left to drown by Nato ships, survivors told Socialist Worker.

They say that their sinking vessel appealed for help from passing Nato and Italian ships, but none would stop.

The United Nations (UN) says that more than 150 people died when a boat overloaded with 850 refugees fleeing Libya’s capital Tripoli sank in the Mediterranean last Friday.

The refugees were mostly mirgrants who had been working in Libya.

Nato claims it had to “intervene” in Libya to save civilian lives. But it has callously refused to help those forced to flee its bombing.

Some of those who lived through the ordeal spoke to Socialist Worker in a refugee camp in Tunisia at Ras Ajdir.

Samuel Michael, a Nigerian, explained, “We were in the middle of the war in Tripoli, so we tried to leave for Europe.

“But we were stranded on the boat at sea for six days. We ran out of food and water after just two.” The boat then capsized after running onto a sandbank.

Samuel said, “Italian and Nato boats saw us, but they ignored us.”

Eventually fishermen found the refugees—but their boats were too small to take passengers, so they alerted the Tunisian authorities.

The survivors say the authorities rescued just two or three refugees at a time—and then only because there was one Tunisian woman on board.

Several survivors accused the UN of lying, saying the disaster was far worse than UN reports have suggested.

Nigerian refugee Sunshine survived the wreck with her young son Mike. But she said, “I lost the father of my son on that boat.”

A Bangladeshi survivor added, “We paid money to get to Libya for work, but were kicked out. We got on the boat to Europe but it sank.”

Another said, “There was bombing all night in Tripoli. Very heavy bombing. We could not stay there.”

A group of Bangladeshis said many died in desperate attempts to escape the sinking ship—jumping to their death.

The conditions at the refugee camp are making their nightmare even worse.

Mothers and their children are often separated into different camps, not knowing if the other is even alive.

One man died after becoming so mad with hunger he ate his own shit.

And allegations of mistreatment by the Tunisian military were rife. Many feared talking to journalists while near the camp. Several complained of beatings.


George Moussa was one of a group of Nigerians trying to find family and friends from the wrecked ship. He pleaded with a senior military official, “I want to see my people, my brother and my wife.”

“Your brother is in the camp or in the sea,” said the smug soldier. “He died, don’t mind. There is no problem, baby.”

George pulled up his shirt to show bruising. “Why did you beat us?” he demanded of the officer.

“Five days at sea, now they don’t feed us,” George told Socialist Worker. “We’ve been drinking salt water. They treat us wrong. We are humans.”

The camp only has salty water on offer to drink—unless refugees pay for bottled.

The group also said they had their passports taken. They were then left outside the camp without food or water.

Survivors include nationals from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Egypt and Morocco. Most have nowhere to go.

People are dying here while European states like Italy and France bicker about how to prevent migration into Europe.

The camp currently interviews only three people a week for refugee status.

The head of the camp, Colonel Chedi, says that 1,000 refugees are crossing the border every day, making 100,000 since the war began. But the European Union has only accepted 100.

Many refugees are starting to return to Libya out of sheer desperation.

Recently refugees protested at the camp’s UN base, calling for more assistance. Hundreds blocked the road—but they were met by thugs with hammers and handguns.

When refugees grabbed rocks to resist, the military moved in. Several bodies were later found in the desert with gunshot wounds.

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Tue 7 Jun 2011, 18:23 BST
Issue No. 2255
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