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In mid-June, Abdulrasoul Ibrahim Omar, 38, hired smugglers to transport him, his pregnant wife and his two small daughters out of Libya.
Speaking over WhatsApp during the journey, he would not say where he was going.
“No safety in Libya. I fled to … ,” he texted, not completing the thought.
Before arriving in Libya, Omar fled genocide in Darfur and Sudan, and survived one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes.
Almost all the people traveling to Libya’s coast in hopes of making it to Europe face beatings, rapes, torture or kidnappings, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Smugglers demand heavy ransoms from the usually impoverished families in exchange for their loved ones’ lives.
“[They are] suffering some of the gravest human rights abuses in the world today,” said Charlie Yaxley, a UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva. “We don’t know how many people are dying on the way.”
At the U.N. Refugee Conference on Wednesday, Libya’s permanent representative to the U.N. office at Geneva said the world’s wealthy nations should take more preventive actions for people feeling the need to flee their countries in the first place.
“Prior to official refugee status, refugees face terrible tragedies through migration and displacement,” said Ambassador Tamim M. Baiou. “As a transit country, Libya is deeply familiar with the first two phases.”
Danger in Libya
Despite the danger of traveling, staying in Libya was not an option, Omar said.
In April, his neighborhood was bombed in the war between the country’s eastern and western governments. He and his neighbors took up residence in a makeshift camp inside a schoolhouse in Tripoli.
Months later, as Omar and his family traveled out of the country, bombs hit a detention center holding refugees and migrants on the other side of town, killing more than 50 people. Most had been arrested after the boats they were trying to take to Europe wrecked in the Mediterranean Sea.
The victims were among the thousands of refugees and migrants detained in Libya above the objections of the UNHCR, which calls the arrests arbitrary and advocates for the release of all the detainees.
Omar’s teenage cousin, Abdullah, was a detainee in the center and survived the blast.
As he searched for a safe place, Omar continued to text. He said the trip was too dangerous to reveal his route.
“When I reach wherever, I will [send] you my location,” he texted.
Dreams of resettlement
Before he left Libya, Omar, his family and his neighbors described their journey into the country. Many wept as they told their stories in a crowded room in the schoolhouse.
One woman was raped by a smuggler. At the time, she was pregnant, and miscarried after the attack. She later found she was pregnant with her rapist’s child. Her husband abandoned her, apparently ashamed.
Another woman pointed out scars on her teenage son’s arms. He had been kidnapped and beaten until she gathered enough money to pay the ransom.
Once in Libya, the families were among the luckier travelers, taking odd jobs and apartments while they continued efforts to get to Europe or other Western countries. Like Omar, they all wanted to be resettled by the U.N., but the wait is long, and there is no guarantee.
Only 5% of the people determined to be eligible for resettlement are placed, according to Yaxley, because wealthier countries offer too few spaces.
“It’s incredibly challenging,” he said.
The families all said they would not return to their homes and would not stay in Libya. They said that if they were not resettled, they would try to get to Europe on a smuggler’s boat. So far this year, more than 1,200 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, according to the International Organization for Migration.
“We follow the media, and we see that many ships collapse,” Omar said. “The only thing I’m looking for is freedom.”
On the move
As the war continued in Libya, the schoolhouse where Omar’s neighbors were staying was evacuated. The residents took shelter in a parking lot.
But Omar and his family found shelter in Tunisia. To get there, the family hired smugglers and walked 25 kilometers through the desert. Mahasen, Omar’s wife, was six months pregnant and exhausted when they arrived.
Now, he is still waiting for resettlement, despite being told months ago that his family was eligible.
“It’s shame from the world to keep silent as we die,” he said in a text on Wednesday.
His new son, Ibrahim, was born in September and is now also waiting to be resettled.
“We are ordinary people,” Omar said. “Only persecuted and fled from war.”