Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Feeling like a ‘Good’: One Snapshot of Migrants’ Perceptions of Detention in Libya



Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Marthe Achtnich, DPhil (PhD) Candidate in Anthropology, University of Oxford. This post is the third installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Blog Series on the Industry of Illegality organised by Ruben Andersson

I was sitting on the floor in a detention centre in Libya with a group of people from Somalia and Eritrea, when suddenly a woman from Nigeria came running up to me. ‘What have you done to end up in here?’ she shouted. Everybody around us started laughing, saying that I was not ‘one of them.’ This little episode captures the confusion some migrants experience in the various detention centres in Libya I visited during my research. ‘We don’t understand why we are in here’ was a common sentence I heard. One woman from Nigeria, who was ‘caught’ on the way to the supermarket, told me that she is a ‘normal’ person, having a husband, a baby and earning money, and that she ‘didn’t do anything wrong.’

For my doctoral research in anthropology, I’ve conducted several months of ethnographic fieldwork in Libya in the first half of 2014 with sub-Saharan Africans in detention centres and outside. They come from various countries―Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon―and have mostly entered Libya through the Sahara desert with the help of smugglers. As I am focusing on their perspectives, here I have used the term ‘migrant’ for all of them. Whilst they’ve left their countries of origin for different reasons, many have similar experiences in Libya.


The legal framework on migration in Libya has long been fragmented. Even before the conflict, the government didn’t maintain a properly functioning asylum process, and the country hasn’t ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In migrants’ daily life in the country, they are exposed to various forms of violence by different actors and to what they perceive as arbitrary arrest and detention, often in deplorable conditions. In theory, migrants are detained because of their lack of documents. They’re arrested on the street, their houses are raided, or they’re brought back in buses from the beach or boat when trying to leave Libya, often without much explanation.


Uncertainty―including being cut off from the outside world and having no access to judicial review―is a crucial part of the detention story for the migrants. In the EU, at least, there is a legal process under way somewhere, migrants often told me. In Libya, meanwhile, they have to hand over their mobile phones, thus having no way of letting their families know what has happened. Some are detained for months, often being moved between detention centres in buses, or back to the south of the country in preparation for their return. An Eritrean migrant kicked an imaginary ball around with his foot showing me that this was how he felt, being ‘kicked’ from one detention centre to the next. ‘The uncertainty is the worst for them,’ one detention guard told me. A migrant from Eritrea recalled how ‘you have to have hope,’ otherwise ‘this is the end, you will go crazy’. Some migrants say that throughout this process of serial detention, they lose the feeling of being human.

In migrants’ own view, detention constitutes a market: it’s about money, about becoming a ‘good’ or commodity. ‘It’s a business’ and ‘we are assets’ were common sentiments. This market also relates to one of the many options of leaving the centres. Migrants often mentioned how one can be set free by paying a certain sum, usually around US $800-US $1,200, at times in negotiation with an embassy, but also directly with certain brokers. Sometimes, the amount appears to be dependent on individual negotiation. One migrant from Somalia recalled how he was told by the broker: ‘In this world there is nothing which is free, if you want to go out, you have to pay for your freedom.’ In a situation similar to bargaining for goods on a market, they eventually agreed on a price of US $700 for his release. An Eritrean man in Tripoli told me how he received the ‘offer’ to pay US $1,000 to get his wife out of detention, but, unable to raise the money, he couldn’t ‘buy’ her out.

Understanding the rules of the business, many migrants aim to ‘find’ money. In fact, this appears to shape much of their existence in Libya, of which the detention centres are only one aspect. Besides trying to find work when outside of detention, one of the other options to find cash for liberation fees is to call family or friends, asking for money to be transferred through informal services. In detention, however, contacting family is difficult and migrants are dependent on guards or the few NGOs active in Libya to establish contact with the outside world. A Somali migrant told me how he ‘learnt’ these rules in detention and therefore knew what he needed ‘next time’ to ‘handle the situation.’ Trying to escape from the buses bringing them to detention, some migrants expressed full awareness of what awaited them: ‘If we get to prison, they will ask for money.’ In these various ways migrants learned to navigate the ‘market’ of controls.

Here, I’ve focused on one snapshot of migrants’ experiences in detention; it’s not my intention to convey the idea that this captures the whole situation in this controversial context. Nevertheless, one should keep in mind EU involvement in migration control efforts in Libya, thus potentially opening a debate on externalized EU policing and the creation of embodied roles and relations between migrants and state and non-state actors in the borderlands. The business with migrants in Libya is lucrative and several actors shape migrants’ experiences, among them security forces, smugglers and militia groups. The situation in detention centres is only a small part of my research on sub-Saharan migrants in Libya and, as I hinted above, similar experiences of ‘money-making’ are present in other migratory spaces as well, outside of the centres.

Author’s note: For my research in the detention centres in Libya, I am immensely grateful to the kind staff at the Libyan NGO and Ministry who supported me, as well as the staff at the detention centres.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Achtnich, M. (2015) Feeling like a ‘Good’: One Snapshot of Migrants’ Perceptions of Detention in Libya. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/10/feeling-'good'  (Accessed [date]).

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