Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza

David Yambio: «The memorandum of agreement with Libya is a terrorist act»

Interview with the spokesperson of Refugees in Libya: “On the 9th and 10th of December we will be in Geneva for a sit-in in front of the UNHCR headquarters”


Translation: Border Disorder

David Yambio is a 26 years old Sudanese refugee who arrived in Italy after many years spent in Libya and several attempts to escape. Yambio managed to flee after being recognised as the organiser of Refugees in Libya, a protest movement that carried out a 100 day sit-in in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tripoli to denounce the living conditions of migrants and the responsibilities of the Libyan and European governments in financing the authorities and the militias.

Melting Pot collected his testimony during the event “Oltre e contro i confini – Beyond and Against Borders” that took place in Trento in the social centre Bruno, at the beginning of November. On that occasion, together with activists from the Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche Alto Vicentino he spoke about struggle and solidarity. We thank Rachele Melorio for the translation.

Hi David, can you tell us about how your personal struggle started and how this has become a collective one?

I would like to start by saying that there are always push and pull factors that determine migration. First of all, forced migrations are due to a variety of elements, from climate change, to poverty and persecutions. The aim for those who move is to find freedom, to find a fair-paid job and to get an adequate education whether in Germany, the USA or UK.

These things that I have just said make clear that migration is something completely natural that will not ever stop. People will continue to move and migrate.

I did not get to choose where to be born or where to live. Sudan as a country has been at war for 30 years, and at the moment is divided in two. I was born in 1997 and when I was only two months old my family had to flee, first to the Congo and then to the Central African Republic, and in the end they returned to Sudan because home is always home. But then we had to leave again, and now I am still looking for a place where I can live a dignified life, a place where I will be allowed to study and work.

When my family returned to South Sudan in 2005 I was young, and then at only 13, the government asked me to enlist into the army. In my childhood I was not allowed to dream, study or live as a child, I was not allowed to see basic human rights respected. And this is a story that characterises the lives of thousands of people.

In 2011 Sudan was divided into two countries and in 2013 the war broke out once more. I was again asked to join the army. I was 18, almost 19, and I decided that I could not kill my brothers and sisters and as a consequence I decided to leave and become a refugee.

In becoming a refugee I lost my house, my family and my country, but I needed to go and find a safe place. First, I went to North Sudan, but I could not find my refuge so I spent two and half years in Chad.

I cannot say if Chad is a safe country or not, as that in a safe country a number of fundamental rights should be guaranteed. Chad, however, is one of the poorest countries in Africa but nonetheless hosts six million refugees.

Later I moved to Libya to try and live a normal life, to find a job and an education, all while hoping and waiting for the war in my country to end and to be able to go back.

«When I arrived in Libya in 2018 what I found was only exploitation and forced labour, a system financed by Italy and other European states».

In Libya, I was not considered a human being. I was living in a detention centre where I suffered inhumane treatment, people on the street would steal from me, in a loop of suffering from which I could not escape. The government was not present, it did not exist, or better it was a mafia system financed by European governments.

So I decided to try and cross the Mediterranean and arrive on the other side, in Italy, to look for a better life. However, the first time I did not succeed. I was caught in the sea and taken into an overcrowded detention centre with little food and little water where I remained for eight months, and where people kept dying. Then, I tried a second and a third time to take to the sea and escape, but always with the same result.

In 2020, with the pandemic and the war in Libya, I understood that I could not remain in that country anymore because there was no chance of living. So, I tried again to cross the Mediterranean, but this time the Italian coast guard pushed me back and I returned to Libya once again. Given that the country was at war, they asked me to join the Libyan army, and I found myself in the same position that I had fled from in Sudan.

What I experienced in Libya and Sudan is totally inhumane and for this reason it is necessary to explain all the details of what is an experience that concerns thousands of human beings, people that are seen and perceived as non-human, considered only as a source of profit. Many women that I met suffered things that I am not going to mention here. Noone is denouncing the violence that we lived through.

Is it at that moment that you all decided to start the movement Refugees in Libya?

In October 2021 the neighbourhood where I was living was surrounded by Libyan militias and some people were taken, including women and children, and brought to detention camps. Many refugees ended up in disparate places and were looking for help in denouncing their terrible situation. We were hoping that journalists could highlight what was happening there and bring these facts to the international community. But this was not happening and there was not the reaction of outrage that we had expected. So, we went to the UNHCR headquarters to ask for effective protection but their response was negative. Therefore, we realised that the only way to make our situation known was through self organisation, and that it was better to fight and die rather than be exploited.

I was the first one to go in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tripoli. Then, little by little, other people arrived: pregnant and sick women that no one was helping. The only thing we could do was remain in a sit-in, and thus our protest started, lasting three months and ten days. Our demands were to be recognised as human beings, both by the European Union and by the Libyan government, and we wanted our human rights to be recognised. Additionally, we were asking to leave the country because Libya did not want us, our objective was to leave.

Thousands of people are not recognised but still they are forced to suffer repression, shootings and killings. We lived without any chance of getting food and hygiene facilities, abandoned to live inhumanely. From the international community there was little interest, Pope Francis and a few other people and organisations cared about our situation. One of these is Mediterranea Saving Humans that tried to understand and feel our suffering and act as a megaphone.

Over the following days, the Libyan militias arrived to take us, they evicted the sit-in and took us away. Many of the people that were protesting in front of the UNHCR were taken back into the camps. Libyan authorities started to look for me because I was the organiser of these protests against the Libyan Government and also the Italian Government. They circulated photos and videos of me in order to find me, many of my brothers were shot and killed.

I repeat once again that migration is something natural for a human being and cannot be stopped.

«I tried to ask the Italian Government for a visa, but it was denied».

The fifth time I tried to cross the Mediterranean I knew would be a point of no return. I would either die drowning in the sea, or I would be captured again and taken back to where militias were looking for me and who would have certainly killed me. However, this time I succeeded and when I arrived I did not forget my brothers and sisters and their suffering, it is for this reason that, ever since I landed, I have been travelling around Italy to try and communicate with politicians and institutions about the situation in Libya.

What have you realised in these months spent in Italy and what is the objective of these meetings?

People that arrive in Lampedusa are continuously used as tools by politicians, we continually hear bad stories about migrants that arrive and are described as invaders, criminals and rapists, but does it look like this to you? Our objective is for Italian society to understand what is happening in the Global South, what is happening at the borders, the restrictions, the violence, the extension of borders into other countries.

Italian and European society must understand what the situation is like, they have to ask themselves why the European passport has so much power and why Europeans have freedom of movement, the freedom to move between different countries. While for us, in the Global South, we do not have this privilege, our lands are considered as simply areas from which to extract resources. Italy needs to know that there are people who continue to die in the Mediterranean and in the desert of the Sahel where there are huge European economic interests, where oil is extracted.

The responsibility for all of this is not just individual but also collective. Regarding the elections that took place not long ago, the issue of migration was central to the debate, and before the Meloni government there were Salvini’s decrees and before that Minniti’s decrees and the memorandum of agreement with Libya that we consider an act of terrorism. Italy is deliberately killing people, it does this by financing someone else to do it for them, on this occasion the Libyan government.

«Italian society needs to know all of this… I repeat once more that migration is something absolutely natural for a human being».

The Sahel desert and the Mediterranean are at this point becoming graveyards, European and Italian society cannot accept this situation. We are not numbers but normal people that are looking for a better life, we are doctors, students, teachers, future and potential entrepreneurs that are continuing to die in the desert, the sea and the detention camps.

A society that remains silent condones all of this, and for this reason we have to hold the authorities to account for this inhumanity.

How do you think you will continue the struggle against borders and against the detention agreement between Italy and Libya?

We are building a network with other groups who are organising and protesting in October against the memorandum with Libya. In Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome and in other places in Europe, there have been events to highlight this criminal system. The objective is to circulate, and organise events that continue to denounce and raise awareness of this. On the 9th and 10th of December we will be in Geneva for the Global Day of Human Rights with the transnational network “Solidarity with Refugees in Libya”. We have called for a two-day sit-in in front of the headquarters of the UNHCR.

We have to ask for the governments to take responsibility. When the war in Ukraine erupted, I was in hiding in Libya and when I saw the acts of solidarity from European and Italian society towards the Ukrainians I was happy because solidarity like this is connected to taking responsibility. Obviously, I am aware that people are more receptive to something when it is nearby and the war in Ukraine seems closer geographically to Europe than what is happening in the Sahel or in other parts of Africa.

«The difference is that often our history is not represented».

We have to ask ourselves what are the causes of the war in Libya. Before, Gaddafi’s Libya was considered a paradise in contrast to other African countries. Then NATO destroyed everything, and what is happening in Libya is scaring all the other African nations. Africa is a continent that does not produce weapons, however, there are children going around with kalashnikovs around their necks, and these arms are produced and sold by Germany, Italy and the United States.

Ultimately, we have to continually remember why people want to migrate, often it is not through their own choice, but because they are forced to do so. All of us are responsible for what is still happening, and so we also have to be responsible for the acts of humanity that we need to advance. Even those who have physical disabilities can do their small part. The people who arrive from the Mediterranean do not have the need for material support but principally emotional support, the need to be listened to and asked what they want and of what they need and what their dreams are.