Like most refugees and asylum seekers who fled Eritrea, John, now 38, left his country to escape mandatory and indefinite national service—an institution criticized by the United Nation’s Human Rights Council for terrible conditions and treatment including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, and forced labor. The Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team met John in April 2019 in a detention center in Libya, when he was seriously ill and desperate to leave the country and seek safety in Europe. Here, John talks about the nearly three years he spent trapped in Libya, incarcerated in four different detention centers.
The first time I tried to cross the Mediterranean was in December 2017. The smuggler had warned us: “Some of you will leave today and the others tomorrow.” We stayed on the shore as 180 people boarded a boat before breaking down off the coast of Libya. The coastguards brought them back to shore and some of them were able to call to us: “Don't go to sea, it's too bad!” Along with 24 other Eritreans, we fled. A few days later, the boat I was [meant] to take sank. Eighty people drowned. This happened shortly after my arrival in Libya.
After fleeing Eritrea, I worked in Sudan to save money to cross the Sahara and then the Mediterranean. But I realized that the sea was dangerous, that many migrants were drowning, and I got scared. At the same time, the UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency] began registering asylum seekers like me and resettling some in Europe and North America. As registration was done primarily in detention centers, I decided to lock myself up in a center in Tripoli. I was registered in March 2018. I spent seven months in this center, then the fighting [between rival armed groups] resumed in Tripoli. We were transferred to another detention center, isolated in the mountains near Zintan.
Many inmates fell ill. I coughed constantly. I didn't know it [at the time] but I had contracted tuberculosis (TB). The director of the center and doctors from an international organization selected about 40 detainees, promising us that we would be transferred to a hospital in Tripoli. Instead, we were taken to another detention center and locked in a [shipping] container for several months. Eight of [the group] died from the disease. It was during this period, in April 2019, that I met the teams of MSF. Their doctors examined us and started transferring us to hospitals.