Health and Fitness

Love blossoms in a Libyan migrant detention centre

In this extract from Sally Hayden’s new guide, The Fourth Time We Drowned, refugees held in a migrant detention centre in Libya inform their tales of heartache and hope

‘I loved you as if I had never seen anyone else in the universe.’Facebook standing by a Sudanese refugee in Libya

‘The worst thing about distance is you don’t know whether or not they’ll miss you or overlook you.’ – Facebook standing by an Eritrean refugee in Libya

The sounds of people hating one another rumbled outdoors Abu Salim detention centre one night time, every week after the refugees have been moved there, as one of many pregnant ladies, Helen, went into labour. Without different choices, ladies pulled plastic luggage on their fingers to assist, as males prayed and panicked about whether or not help would come. There was a hum of tension all through the massive corridor. Aware that there was no medical employee accessible if something went incorrect, detainees prayed for the infant’s secure supply. “It was the traditional way. But God was there with us,” one remembered later.

‘It’s too laborious to discover a girl in Europe… You need to marry somebody from your personal nation’

The toddler’s first breaths have been these of the incarcerated, her deliverance praised by individuals who have been ready for their very own. Like them, she would go with out daylight and nourishment; she symbolised desperation, but additionally hope. After coming into the world, she remained locked up: simply one other of the hundreds of refugees and migrants trapped in indefinite detention in a war-torn nation and not using a steady authorities, and one in all roughly 640 kids that have been being held in “official” government-run Libyan detention centres at the moment.

“Surprise. The pregnant woman I told you about has born a child” *

The backstory of the younger mother and father of this lady was a reminder that love might blossom in probably the most unlikely locations, even alongside an unpredictable and chaotic migration route that sporadically tore folks aside. Helen escaped Eritrea in 2016 and made her technique to Khartoum. Also within the metropolis, although she didn’t comprehend it, was Birhan, one other Eritrean, who labored in a bakery. Both of them wished to succeed in Europe.

In January 2017 they ended up in the identical automobile, crossing the Sahara Desert and arriving in a smuggler’s warehouse. The man who transported them introduced it could price six thousand {dollars} to get in a ship, so Helen phoned kin, effectively conscious that if she couldn’t increase the cash she can be brutally tortured. They would keep in that warehouse for a 12 months.

Birhan had nobody to return to his assist. The smugglers beat him every day. “He broke my arm, he broke my head, he broke everything in my body,” Birhan recalled, referring to his smuggler. “He knew I didn’t have anything. He was not happy, he was so angry, he was so mad.” Birhan was even shot within the leg at one level.

Helen’s brother and different kin clubbed collectively and raised the cash she wanted, however by this stage she had fallen in love with Birhan. More than that, she was two months pregnant. He advised Helen to go on forward of him, to get their child to security. The couple separated however Helen was not despatched to the ocean; the gang who took her claimed that they had issues reaching the coast. Confusingly, the chief smuggler appeared to tire of beating Birhan and put him on a ship as a substitute. He stayed at sea for 16 hours earlier than he was intercepted and introduced again to Tariq al Matar detention centre in Tripoli, then relocated to Ain Zara detention centre.

Helen remained with the smugglers. Her being pregnant meant she was sick day-after-day. Birhan procured a cellphone to contact her captors, who demanded 600 dinars to have her despatched to Tripoli. She arrived at Ain Zara by automobile, six months pregnant, her abdomen protruding. At the gate, she defined who she was, angering Ain Zara’s supervisor, who threatened to ship Birhan to the police station. In the tip, Helen was allowed inside. Birhan was current as their first youngster was born.

Natalia Kanem, executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. Photograph: Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images
Natalia Kanem, government director of the UN Populations Fund. Photograph: Thomas Koehler/Photothek through Getty Images

Weeks later, sitting in a convention room in a high-rise constructing in the course of the UN General Assembly in New York, I used a press briefing with Natalia Kanem, the chief director of the UN Populations Fund, to inform her how Helen had given beginning. I described the plastic luggage used as gloves, a whole bunch of refugees bent in prayer, and the echoes of struggle outdoors. This was a lady turned again from the ocean below EU coverage, I stated. This child might have been born in Europe.

Kanem listened rigorously. She stated ladies shouldn’t be pressured to provide beginning in detention centres and may have privateness, regardless of the place they have been. “Any pregnant woman deserves her full human rights and dignity and it does not matter whether you’re a refugee,” Kanem stated. “I believe the concern for the life of the mother and her newborn is something enshrined in the common will, which the definition of human rights represents.”

But Helen knew her child was removed from any idea of human rights. “I just want to get my baby in a perfect place, a good place, and live as a normal person,” she advised me by way of WhatsApp from Abu Salim. Birhan echoed this. “My plan was just to escape [Eritrea], but now I have a wife and child to worry about,” he stated. “I just want to work and have a normal, proper family.”

For Helen and Birhan, their environment now introduced as a listing of all of the methods their youngster was in peril. A child was a burden, the complication that might stop their escape, but additionally their largest motivation for getting out of there.


The first struggle subsided, however the Libyan guards who disappeared as preventing raged throughout Tripoli didn’t return full time to Abu Salim detention centre. In whole, they have been absent for practically three months. One of the sudden penalties of this newfound freedom was what number of refugees started to fall in love. The Libyans had maintained that mixing between the sexes was haram – forbidden. Now, these guidelines have been gone they usually mingled freely.

Love doesn’t select a spot, each place there’s love. You begin to meet a lady with out the police. Everyone was sleeping in each nook.*

There have been {couples} who had met within the smugglers’ warehouses or within the Sahara Desert. There was love that had grown over time, all through the infinite, spirit-crushing challenges, and love that had sprung straight away. There was love that had bloomed from dependency, and there was love that arrived with the surging realisation that nobody else would ever perceive what their minds, our bodies and souls had gone by way of.

You see wonderful love. One girl waited one 12 months till the person’s household might pay [the smugglers for him]. They met within the Sahara and she or he waited one 12 months.*

The new romances lightened the overall temper throughout the centre, but additionally made it tougher for refugees pining sweethearts that they had left behind. Some weren’t in a position to contact house in any respect, they usually puzzled if their companions have been alive or useless, or had merely moved on, unwilling to attend for a lover in limbo. Mustafa, a handsome man with a brilliant smile and a keenness for selfies, advised me his private tragedy: the attractive girl he was deeply in love with; the connection he had unknowingly sacrificed to make this journey to nowhere. In photographs he despatched me, she smiled shyly right into a digital camera. He had mapped out their life collectively, fantasised about their marriage ceremony. If he reached Europe she might come and be a part of him there, he imagined, however he received caught alongside the route.

Migrants sitting in a packed room at the Tariq Al-Matar detention centre on the outskirts of the Libyan capital Tripoli. Photograph: Taha Jawashi/AFP via Getty Images
Migrants sitting in a packed room on the Tariq Al-Matar detention centre on the outskirts of the Libyan capital Tripoli. Photograph: Taha Jawashi/AFP through Getty Images

Mustafa was from the border of Sudan and Eritrea. His girlfriend was Eritrean, and marriage was the one means she might keep away from indefinite conscription. That meant the tip of their future collectively. “Her mom said to my dad we can’t wait a long time because maybe the policemen will take her to the military camp,” Mustafa advised me. As he counted seconds, days, years incarcerated in Libya, Mustafa’s father agreed the lady ought to wed another person. “My story with her [is] finished,” Mustafa brooded. “Another man will marry her.”

To distract himself, Mustafa labored out in Abu Salim’s yard every day, fashioning weights with metallic bars he discovered mendacity round. At every finish he positioned a plastic bottle crammed with cement. He set himself challenges, however they didn’t cease Mustafa from occupied with his misplaced love continuously. He in contrast her destiny to Eritrea itself – caught up within the whims of a dictatorship exercising brutal management over its inhabitants.

Dear Eritrea is sort of a candy lady. A egocentric individual got here and killed her love and made her like darkness!*


In Abu Salim, there was severe stress on relationships. It got here from the understanding that ladies got precedence for evacuation and, in the event that they have been married, their husbands would accompany them. Refugees normally flee with out paperwork, or lose any they convey with them, so proof was pointless. It was not lengthy earlier than just lately shaped {couples} would have a dialog, reaching an understanding that they’d register as married if the chance arose.

There have been loveless relationships too, the ladies taking pity on the boys. “It starts like a game and then they have a baby,” Essey would inform me about a few of these. “If the woman is good [the man will] stay with her. It’s too hard to find a woman in Europe… You have to marry someone from your own country.”

This was not distinctive to Abu Salim. In Tajoura, a detention centre in japanese Libya, marriages have been organised by letter. A person would write, giving his rigorously worded script to a detainee who labored with the guards – the capos – earlier than it was handed on to a lady in a separate cell. He might have by no means seen the lady in individual however, if she accepted, for the sake of their evacuation bids they have been collectively and in love.

Migrants hold a placard at Ain Zara detention centre for migrants in the Libyan capital Tripoli. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images
Migrants maintain a placard at Ain Zara detention centre for migrants within the Libyan capital Tripoli. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP through Getty Images

We are in several hangars however they write letters and provides it to the migrants who’re working along with the guards who give letters to the females, so that is how they marry. As she is out of your nation, she is going to settle for marrying as a result of she is aware of that UNHCR is [only] coping with those that are married. UNHCR doesn’t switch single [men], so individuals are marrying right here in Tripoli in order that UNHCR will evacuate them.*

In the times earlier than an evacuation the guards in Tajoura would permit refugee {couples} to fulfill for the primary time, for about half-hour. It was an opportunity to say hiya and change bashful smiles, or to be met with steely eyes, hardened in pursuit of an escape route. These have been Libya’s marriages of comfort.

In a number of circumstances the ladies didn’t consent. One refugee, who acted as a translator in Abu Salim when worldwide organisations visited, advised UNHCR he was married to a lady in the identical centre with out her understanding what he was saying. They have been registered and he satisfied her to not right the error. Eventually, they have been evacuated to Italy collectively, however she advised mates she hated him.

Other instances, males would pull out of the preparations final minute. One younger Somali man advised me he got here to an settlement with a lady in Tajoura whom guards allowed him to talk to for 5 minutes, head to head, after a day of pressured labour. He later panicked, fearful concerning the stress of being answerable for a spouse, and determined he might survive extra simply alone. The girl was later evacuated with one other man.

Sally Hayden
Sally Hayden writes from Africa for The Irish Times

As the UN Refugee Agency started to register extra detainees inside detention centres, a choose variety of refugees dwelling within the metropolis outdoors – together with those that had bribed their means out earlier than – started paying cash to the guards to allow them to enter, determined to have their asylum claims heard and their particulars taken by UNHCR. Married {couples} have been significantly prone to are available, hopeful that they’d be chosen.

It was particularly laborious for many who have been already married and had left spouses behind, whom they wished to be reunited with in the future. They couldn’t permit a pretend marriage to be listed on their paperwork and rule out the potential for making use of for household reunification down the road. “For someone like me, I’m married. My wife and son are suffering somewhere [but] UNHCR can’t believe that I am married unless they see my wife and my son. That’s unfair treatment,” one South Sudanese man in Tajoura stated to me.

Years later, I travelled round Europe assembly former Libya detainees. Some have been useless or disappeared

There have been additionally folks in detention with spouses already in Europe. One younger Eritrean, Hamid, arrived in Germany in 2014 and not using a laborious copy of his marriage certificates, which he misplaced whereas escaping. Even with it, the German authorities stated the union wouldn’t have been recognised, because it was carried out in a church and never licensed by the Eritrean authorities. Though he had gone forward to save lots of his spouse, Kedija, the perils of the journey, she ended up having to make the identical journey with out his safety. Kedija was caught by the Libyan coastguard. After months in Ain Zara and Abu Salim, she referred to as him saying she wished to die.

I turned conscious of their case when a German pastor, who was searching for Hamid in Germany, contacted me asking if there was something I might do (I referred him to the UN). In late 2018 I interviewed Hamid, asking whether or not he felt his relationship might recuperate from this prolonged separation and all they endured aside. “Although the trauma we both have, I believe that we could live a normal life again,” he stated. “We still love each other like five years ago. Love makes you strong and there is always hope.” He advised me he was doing effectively: he discovered a job as a methods engineer, had an house, and was prepared for her arrival, at any time when it’d occur. All he had achieved thus far was for his spouse.

Kedija was evacuated to Niger, en path to Europe, after being chosen by UNHCR for resettlement. It got here too late. In November 2019 she revealed that she was pregnant with a child from one other man. She severed the connection with Hamid and was resettled to a different nation as a substitute of Germany. Later, she would lose her child and try to reconnect together with her husband, however he was unwilling to talk to her. He turned depressed, unable to pay attention to the extent that he risked shedding his job. The future he had projected for them, the purpose which had saved him going for therefore lengthy, had crumbled. Theirs was simply one other tragedy within the broad tapestry of destinies irrevocably altered by this inequitable, treacherous system.


Years later, I travelled round Europe assembly former Libya detainees. Some have been useless or disappeared. Those I met in individual would fill me in on the destiny of others whose tales I had come throughout. Helen and Birhan, the couple whose daughter, Ikram, was born in Abu Salim detention centre as struggle raged in 2018, have been ultimately resettled to Canada. Their child had grown right into a wholesome toddler with a large smile, who liked dancing in entrance of the TV. I used to be handed Birhan’s quantity, and we spoke on the cellphone. “She changed my life,” he stated with pleasure, as Ikram babbled within the background. “She’s smarter than average. She’s playing with me all the time… I love you, honey,” he added, the final half directed to his daughter. When she was older, he stated, they’d inform Ikram the story of the place she got here into the world; how courageous her mom was; and the way many individuals prayed for her survival.

Extract taken from The Fourth Time, We Drowned by journalist Sally Hayden, which is printed by Harper Collins on March 31st

Sally Hayden writes from Africa for The Irish Times

*Direct message despatched to the writer from a detained refugee


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