TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya – When Abdullah boarded an inflatable boat crammed with fellow migrants in February he thought he would finally reach Europe after braving the dangers of a Sahara crossing and Libya’s civil war.
The 27-year-old from Niger knew the voyage ahead was risky. The Mediterranean waters between Libya and Italy have claimed thousands of lives in recent years as people sought a better life in richer, safer countries.
After only two hours at sea, naval vessels turned back the small flotilla of smuggling boats, returning Abdullah to the Libyan mainland where he had faced violence and abuse.
“I cried and cried … It was terrible to fail after all that hard work,” he said.
Afraid of being detained by police or an armed group, Abdullah asked to be identified by his first name only.
As the coronavirus pandemic slowed people’s movement in the spring, the numbers trying to cross from Libya to Italy dropped. But as the months have worn on, smugglers’ rickety vessels have taken to the waves again.
So far, more than 1,000 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2020. That is fewer than last year’s 1,800, but fatalities have picked up since October.
Mediterranean migrant deaths rose from 117 in September to 141 in October and 184 in November, according to the U.N. migration agency.
The risks migrants take to reach mainland Europe are not only at sea. In Libya, there has been little central authority since the 2011 uprising and armed groups often control the streets in major cities.
In May, gunmen in the desert city of Mizda abducted 30 migrants in the hope of extracting a ransom, tortured them and slaughtered them when a few tried to fight back.
Abdullah was confined to a crowded detention centre in northwest Libya after his abortive attempt to flee, and there was little to eat and barely room to sleep. After two months, a friend bribed a guard and he escaped, he said.
When Abdullah tried to make the voyage a second time, he was stopped by fighters on his way to the rendezvous and robbed of the money had earned in previous months to pay for his passage.
He now works as a cleaner in Tripoli, and has given up on another sea crossing.
Even reaching Libya was a triumph of sorts. After paying a smuggler, Abdullah joined a dozen other migrants in a pick-up truck trundling for days across the desert to the border. They had little water and two passengers died, he said.
Once inside Libya, he faced the reality of a country at war.
“There are militias everywhere here. Sometimes I lose hope and I just want to return to Niger. I work very hard then armed people storm my home and take my money,” he said.
In the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, Somali national Abdul Razzaq Yassin is still determined to get to Europe.
Sick of the insecurity in his hometown of Mogadishu, Yassin left after his father was killed.
Smugglers helped him cross into Ethiopia and then Sudan before reaching the remote Libyan desert area of Kufra, where he was detained with hundreds of others in an airport hangar.
Eventually he escaped.
Several friends have already reached Europe and he is determined to join them, whatever dangers the Mediterranean poses.
“There’s no future at all. I want to go to Europe.”