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21 August 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 8:41am

As an LGBT refugee, Europe’s deal with Libya has left me fearing for my life

I feared that if I told the UN officials why I fled, they could transfer the information to the Libyan authorities, who might shoot me. 

By Ali Ibrahim

I escaped Somalia because I am gay, but now I’m trapped in Libya. At home they will shoot me, because in Somalia it is not allowed to be LGBT. In Libya, they will also shoot me, because it’s like Somalia. Maybe it’s even worse than Somalia.

I know of around ten more LGBT refugees in detention centres here, and others outside. Europe should welcome LGBT refugees and help them, as they used to. But Europe struck a deal with Libya, which means that Libya’s coastguard would intercept those of us fleeing across the Mediterranean. They are now returning us to a country where we can be killed.

In Somalia, I got through a lot of obstacles. Whenever I tried to ask my family and my friends what they believed about LGBT people, they used to say to me: “They are bad people and they don’t have a right to live in this country.” So I kept asking them. For example, I asked: “What if your friend or brother was gay, what would you do to him?” They told me that they would kill or torture him until he turned straight. I was afraid a lot after I heard that.

I didn’t tell my family I was leaving. If I had, my life would have been over. But once I got to Libya, I had to call them to get money for the smugglers. They were shocked to hear about where I was, and how I had been tortured by the smugglers. In that situation, we didn’t have a chance to talk about the reasons I had gone. 

I only had to pay $500 up front to make the journey to Libya, which I had saved from my job in Somalia. But when I arrived I was held by smugglers for five months, until I paid another $9,000, collected from family members. The smugglers tortured me. They poured flaming drops of plastic bottles on my body. I’m covered in scars from it. A friend, who is also LGBT, was tortured especially badly when he was in the smugglers’ place.

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I tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy twice – late last year and early this year – but each time I was caught by the coastguard and put in detention.

In detention, I was registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). I was given a file number and interviewed, but I still didn’t know whether the UN would evacuate me out of there. Whenever the UNHCR interviewed me, I denied being gay. I was too scared to tell them the truth. I was scared that after the interview the Libyans might send me back where I came from. It is not the fault of the UNHCR employees that I didn’t tell them anything. They’re Muslims and I thought that if I told them, they might be unsympathetic because of their religious views, and transfer the information to the Libyan authorities, who might shoot me. Sometimes I’d blame myself because I was not feeling safe.

The UN told me my chance of evacuation was small because I’m single. After they told me that, I decided to try to escape. They were playing me all the time, just like I was a piece in a game. I didn’t feel like they spoke to me seriously. 

There were many things that were difficult in the detention centre, like ill health, mental stress and aggression. The place was not well ventilated. Whenever you go outside, you think you have been infected by the germs spread through overcrowding. It is a very bad place.

I escaped the detention centre three months ago. Now I’m staying with other refugees in Tripoli. Every day, Libyan smugglers try to pressure us to go with them to a camp where they collect people, take their money and push them into the sea. It now costs $2,000 to try and cross by boat.

I went to the UNHCR office in Tripoli this month, but the guards stopped me from entering, so I left. Now I’m planning to speak to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which helps people return to their home country. There is no other way for me other than going back, even though I’m going to suffer.

One of my friends got shot in Libya recently. Some militia shot him in the leg while he was walking in the city. He’s dead now. Another friend was attacked by Libyans while he was in his room. They tried to kidnap him, but he tried his best to defend himself. They literally just shot him instead. Now he is in hospital.

They attack us just like that. We have to tolerate it until things improve; there’s nowhere to move, so we’re just sticking here.

I know that the European Union has well-respected human rights, and no one judges you if you are gay or straight. Libyans don’t know anything about rules and human rights. Here no one knows what I am, except God, but I still don’t feel safe.

This article was written in partnership with Sally Hayden. 

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