Some 260 African migrants intent on reaching Europe, even at the risk of a boat journey similar to one feared to have cost hundreds of lives this week, awaited their fate Wednesday on the Libyan coast.
They were gathered outside a police station in the Mediterranean city of Misrata, 200 kilometres (120 miles) from Tripoli, after having been detained by the Libyan navy out at sea.
Some of them were barefoot, others shirtless as well, their dream of a peaceful life working in Europe in tatters — at least until their next attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
Security guards kept watch, as Somali Abdel Rashid, who was arrested with the others, spoke of another vain bid to escape misery back home and the insecurity of conflict-wracked Libya.
“I wanted to go to Europe because the situation in Somalia is so difficult what with the civil war. But I got arrested,” said Abdel Rashid, wearing red trousers and an orange shirt.
He told AFP he had paid $600 (560 euros) to people traffickers. Now all he hopes for is to be handed over to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
Abdel Rashid’s group was intercepted the same day as a shipwreck off the Libyan coast in which 400 people are feared to have drowned.
The Italian coastguard on Monday said it had managed to rescue 144 of the people on the sunken vessel, while nine bodies were also recovered.
“There were 400 victims in this shipwreck, which occurred 24 hours after (their vessel) left the Libyan coast,” Save the Children said, citing survivors.
The latest tragedy came as Italian authorities said around 8,500 migrants had been rescued at sea between Friday and Monday.
‘We are not hostages’
Mussa, a Senegalese who worked in Libya for seven months before his aborted attempt to start a new life, expressed disgust with his predicament.
“We are not hostages. All we want is to make some money for our families. We left Libya headed north to find a way,” said the man in his 30s.
“They found us out at sea. Now, here we are with no place to sleep and with a lot of sick people,” Mussa said with tears in his eyes.
The director of a Misrata centre that combats illegal immigration, Salah Abu Dabbus, said his institution was housing “more than 900 people whose lives were saved”.
But many in the detained group were unconvinced.
“I’ve been in Libya for a year. I wanted to go to Italy but didn’t manage it,” said Mohamed, a Senegalese aged around 20.
The Libyans “brought us here and I don’t know what they have in store for us,” he said, complaining of a lack of drinking water, food and sanitary conditions.
The UN envoy for Libya, Bernardino Leon, sympathised Wednesday with the lot of migrants stranded in Libya.
“It’s a terrible drama. This is Libya today. Terrorism, no border controls, people dying each day in the Mediterranean, air raids,” he said from Morocco where he is trying to mediate between Libya’s warring factions.