By Mustafa Fetouri
For the last eight years, my home town of Bani Walid, 180 kilometres southwest of Tripoli, has become one of the favourite route for people traffickers and illegal migrants heading north towards the Mediterranean coast on their dangerous trip to Europe by sea.
The route extends from the southern Libyan desert and runs for over 1,000 kilometres.
Migrants usually arrive in batches of between 100 and more in pickup trucks organised by traffickers and mostly driven by locals who know the area and can easily evade detection.
Once in Bani Walid migrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan African countries, seek day jobs to get enough money to continue their trip towards Tripoli and Garabulli on the Mediterranean.
Some have enough money so they continue their trip straight to Sabratha and Garabulli, west and east of Tripoli respectively.
Once there they are likely to have to wait between two weeks and two months before traffickers organise the sea journey to southern Italy using inflatable dinghies and setting them off on the most dangerous part of their already perilous journey.
Along the desperate trip many die of hunger and dehydration, others are shot dead if they get in the crossfire between different smugglers who engage in occasional fighting over control of the long trafficking route.
In Bani Walid though, migrants can be sure of receiving some rest, free food and medical care and even clothes thanks to a local organisation called Al-Bayt Al-Aamn (Safe House) which was set up by former university Professor Hussein Kheir.
Kheir started the Safe House as a charity aiming to help migrants in 2016. His activities are funded by donations from locals as well as local charity organisations and he “accepts any kind of donations be it money, clothes, food, medicine”.
Between 2016 and today some 4,873 migrants have passed through the Safe House including 447 women. They usually stay anywhere between one day and a week before they decide their next step.
While in the house Kheir mobilises his network of volunteers, including, medical doctors and the local hospital. All those who need medical treatment are taken to the hospital or treated on site depending on their condition.
So far at least 13 women have given birth in the house. They stayed longer receiving free care until they were well enough to leave. Some migrants find jobs in the city and decide to stay in Bani Walid visiting the Safe House every now and then. Others continue their journey towards Europe.
At the Safe House, Kheir tries to register people, taking as much detail as possible including their countries of origin and noting how they want to proceed.
If any decide they want to go home and not continue on to Europe, Kheir informs the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which is in regular contact with the Safe House from its Tripoli office. The IOM then repatriates them as part of its “voluntary return programme”.
During their stay in the Safe House migrants are not under any obligation to do anything other than behave responsibly and observe the house rules which include: report any abuse, never leave the house after dark, be on time for meals, do not beg in the streets and do not hide any medical conditions that might be contagious.
“This helps us identify the needs of different people and help them accordingly,” Kheir tells me. It also helps the charity improve its work by getting feedback first hand.
Since its doors first opened, the Safe House has been home to people from every sub-Saharan African country except South Africa and Namibia. Usually migrants find out about it from locals and police checkpoints around Bani Walid while some hear about it on social media.
On any given day anywhere between three and 12 migrants arrive in the Safe House. Once registered, they are provided the necessary medical care and a bed, blanket and food.
It’s doors are open to new comes at any time, and if Kheir isn’t there at the time of their arrival, residents see to it that the newcomers are cared for.
Libya’s unstable political climate over the past eight years has made it an easy target for traffickers who smuggle migrants and refugees to Europe. News from the country repeatedly pinpoints cases of abuse committed against migrants and refugees. Too often the humanitarian work that locals carry out to help refugees and migrants goes unreported.
Kheir’s actions prove that “Libyans care about others”. This, he says, “will automatically improve Libya’s image.” However his drive remains “helping those poor people to be safe at least for a while.”
Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist.