Damned for Trying

A massive wave of migration is crashing through North Africa, but there is only one major gateway to Europe — and it's through Libya.

A massive wave of migration is crashing through North Africa, but there is only one major gateway to Europe — and it's through Libya.

The largest flow of modern African migration funnels through a single country — Libya.

Coming from the south, migrants flee the vestiges of wars that have left entire nations in ruin. From the east, they escape a life of indefinite military servitude and violent conflict. From the west, they evade destitution and governments that arbitrarily jail whomever they please.

Some arrive by choice, others by force. But Libya is the purgatory where most migrants prepare to face the deadliest stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
For roughly 180 U.S. dollars, migrants may pay to ride on top of lorries that shuttle goods across the desert between Niger and Libya.

What links the migrants' stories is the fundamental human desire for survival. But that doesn't begin to explain the complexity of Libya's crisis.

The costs of the journey -- both human and monetary -- match a steep sum of desperation and demand.

The conundrum Libya poses for policymakers is that the root of its wave of migration does not come from a single source. Like a flood of tributaries streaming to the mouth of a river, migrants are fleeing en masse from at least a dozen different countries.

Shutting off the flow would mean addressing the needs of migrants spanning half of an entire continent.

image with artdirection
Temperatures in the Murzuq Desert can rise as high as 108 °F during the brutally hot summer months.

To tell the story of Libya's escalating migration crisis, one must weave together the threads of instability left behind by a toppled dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and the power vacuum filled by rivaling factions vying to take his place. The chaos allowed smuggling networks to thrive, suddenly opening up a lucrative market designed to profit off trading humans like other goods and commodities.

The country's 1,100-mile coastline has effectively become an open border without government forces to monitor who comes and who goes. Smugglers have filled the void, willing to tightly pack hundreds of migrants at a time into flimsy vessels and shuttle them to Italy.

Migrant crossings through the central Mediterranean jumped by more than four-fold after 2013. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 182,000 migrants from Libya have landed in Italy since the start of last year, exacerbating a massive refugee crisis already spilling out of Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

image with artdirection
Captured migrants from sub-Saharan countries are taken to detention centers across Libya. Humanitarian groups allege that some migrants are held as long as four years without seeing any judicial review.

Unlike the millions of people forcibly displaced by Syria's brutal five-year civil war, migrants that pass through Libya do so amid a complex web of forces that have uprooted entire generations.

For years, broad regions of sub-Saharan Africa have been swallowed by squalor and extreme poverty, crushed under the rule of oppressive governments or caught in the crosshairs of deadly groups that thrive on terror.

But suddenly, technology made the world much smaller and dreams more concrete. Facebook feeds were now flooded with pictures of friends and family who had made it to Europe, projecting the notion that a dramatically improved lifestyle was easily within reach. Remittance packages from loved ones abroad proved that higher wages were not merely a myth. Connections to smugglers selling safe passage to a new life were all of a sudden just a phone call away.

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Two indigenous Saharan tribes, the Tuareg and Tebu, have fought for control and legitimacy ever since the Libyan government collapsed in 2014. Migrants are often caught in the middle of the power struggle, with many facing arbitrary and indefinite detention.

The problems driving migration through the northern fold have been festering for decades. But for a short time, world leaders were able to keep the wave from spilling over into Europe.

Gaddafi once proudly served as protector to his country's maritime border, promising that, for a sizable compensation from Europe, makeshift loads of human cargo would not suddenly arrive in search of refuge on Italian shores.

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Armed militias control stretches of the border between Niger and Libya, where they raid smugglers and seize thousands of Libyan dinars, drugs, phones and counterfeit money.

The European Union in 2008 cut a deal with the dictator, agreeing to pay $500 million in exchange for keeping migrants away. Italy later redoubled that deal. Gaddafi received an additional $5 billion over 20 years, a financial package intended to right the wrongs of colonialism, on the condition that he kept a tight grip on the border.

Suddenly, it wasn't just migrants arriving in Italy by the thousands. A disturbing number of corpses were washing up on shore.

Those deals dissolved along with Gaddafi's iron-clad rule over Libya. Clinging to the European money that helped finance his dictatorship, Gaddafi in 2010 did little to hide the racial subtext in his threats to Western leaders: Without him, their countries would be flooded with unwanted foreigners.

"Europe runs the risk of turning black from illegal immigration," Gaddafi warned. "It could turn into Africa."

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
(Left) A Nigerian detainee shows his scars from being beaten by smugglers on his journey through the Sahara. (Right) A 16-year-old from Somalia was captured by Libyan authorities when his boat bound for Italy foundered in the Mediterranean. The neck wound he sustained from the shipwreck is now infected.

Gaddafi tapped into the ugliest part of the European public's fear of immigrants and concerns that their communities would falter under the weight of rapid migration.

But in the time since Gaddafi's fall from power and subsequent death in 2011, international attention on the flood of migration has grown, reflecting the level of desperation that fueled the crisis. Suddenly, it wasn't just migrants arriving in Italy by the thousands — a disturbing number of corpses were also washing up on shore.

image with artdirection
Smuggling routes across the central Mediterranean Sea mark the deadliest point of all migration in the region. More than 3,000 people have tried to cross from Libya to the Italian coast.

The Mediterranean is now a vast unmarked grave to thousands of migrant lives lost at sea. More than 3,000 people have died crossing the most treacherous point of the Mediterranean, where Libya's northern shore connects to the string of islands surrounding the Italian coast.

European authorities have tried to crack down on the practice, turning back the boats still out at sea. Many migrants are deported outright. But for every smuggler's ship that is seized by authorities, a new, often rickety, version replaces it, launched at the peril of those onboard.

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
The International Organization of Migration estimates that 4 percent of all migrants in Libya are being held in detention centers. This Eritrean immigrant, affected by a psychological disorder, was arrested after trying to reach Italy by boat.

The costs of the journey — both human and monetary — match a steep sum of desperation and demand. But what's most shocking about the factors driving families from their homes is that no two countries are the same.

The journey will drag them through several layers of hell before their toes even touch the sea.

Of the entire African continent, Eritrea — the country that sends the highest number of migrants to Europe — is roughly equal in size to the state of Pennsylvania. Nearly 40,000 migrants fled Eritrea last year, escaping a government notorious for one of the worst human rights records in the world and for condemning citizens to lifetimes of mandatory military service.

But neighboring Somalia, another distressed country located along the eastern Horn of Africa, has its own migration push-factors at play, pinned to decades of armed conflict, now leading to the rise of al-Shabaab rebels throughout the region.

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa live in settlements throughout Libya as they await work and the chance to cross the Mediterranean. Some wait months, even years, before they can afford to hire smugglers.

The dynamic is markedly different along the western route to Libya.

Referred to as "the backdoor to Europe," the lines of migration link a diverse region. In a single leg of the journey, one might find a mix of Nigerians displaced by the militant insurgent group Boko Haram, Gambians escaping a brutal authoritarian government, or Senegalese existing on the brink of survival.

image with artdirection
Men vastly outnumber women along the migrant routes that cross the Sahara. Those women arrested by Libyan authorities are taken to separate detention quarters from the men.

What many migrants don't know is that their journey will drag them through several layers of hell before their toes even touch the sea.

Five out of the six countries that border Libya have either been engulfed in war or are in the midst of violent unrest. In order to reach the ports that serve as the gateways to Europe, migrants first must spend months, even years, criss-crossing the Sahara or the countries still raw from violent armed conflicts.

The desert has turned into a massive hub for human smuggling, with migrants shuttled between refugee camps, stash houses, even tucked inside the hollowed-out center of a merchant's lorry. Those who survive share horror stories of kidnappers who held them for ransom, waiting hours, days, or weeks until families back home or in Europe opened up their pocketbooks once again.

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Two indigenous Saharan tribes, the Tuareg and Tebu, are in the midst of a yearlong armed conflict for control. The breakdown of law and order leaves thousands of migrants swept up in chaos, languishing in detention centers or in search of work to fund the next leg of their journey.

Conditions inside Libya have deteriorated since the citizen uprising against Gaddafi and the government's collapse in 2014. Armed conflict between two rivaling factions has engulfed the country as they fight for legitimacy. The chaos has caused a massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of Libyans who are left now without work or a place to call home.

Migrants caught in the crossfire are often used as pawns in the power struggle. Thousands languish in overcrowded detention centers on any given day, and allegations of torture and unsanitary conditions have led to concerns of widespread human rights violations.

image with artdirection
Nearly shipwrecked at sea, a group of Somali migrants are captured by authorities and returned to Libya.

That Libya serves as a beacon of hope points to the desperation that drives families from their homes.

The country is a place of limbo as migrants face chaos and prepare for the next leg of their journey. Tenements dot the major ports of migration, filled with mostly African men in search of jobs to fund their travels.

For a time, Libya's economy was largely propped up by the labor of foreign workers. The oil-rich nation was once a prosperous land of opportunity. But now, there's not much by way of jobs. And with each new wave of migrants trucked into the coastal cities, opportunities diminish.

LORENZO MELONI was born and raised in Rome. His work mainly focuses on conflict in the Middle East. He followed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009, Yemen's rapid decline in 2010 and the "Arab Spring". Meloni stresses "the importance of patience when following a story, especially if you want to get really close to a subject." His work has been exhibited at Italian and international festivals such as the Venice Biennale, Visa pour L'Image, Les Rencontres d'Arles, Boutographies and Fotoleggendo and it has been featured in international publications including: The Telegraph, Time, Le Figaro, Vanity Fair, Internazionale, L'Espresso, and La Repubblica, among others.

Lorenzo joined Magnum as a nominee in 2015.