The sun illuminates the streets of Rome on this day in June 2023. David Yambio, elegantly dressed in a suit and tie, appears in front of the Montecitorio Palace, seat of the Chamber of Deputies, where he is invited by parliamentarians to bear witness to the suffering of exiles stuck in Libya.

In front of the audience, the 26-year-old South Sudanese, who has become the spokesperson for those remaining on the other side of the Mediterranean, describes “the nightmarish conditions, slavery, inhumane treatment and torture” practiced in the immigration detention centers. A consequence, he says, of a “mechanism created by the European authorities and by the Italian government”, in reference to the training, financing and donations of equipment granted by Brussels and Rome to the authorities in Tripoli. The European Union (EU) has dedicated nearly 700 million euros, between 2015 and 2022, to fight against migration from Libya. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, for her part, made her fourth trip to Tunisia in less than a year on Wednesday April 17, focusing once again on the fight against illegal immigration.

The value of David Yambio’s testimony is all the greater as he himself experienced the Libyan experience, of which he describes himself as “a survivor”. In four years in this country, he was taken prisoner seventeen times and intercepted four times at sea by armed groups that act as a coast guard. He knows the official and unofficial detention centers, the different militias involved in the violence against would-be migrants and the names of certain executioners.

Received by Pope Francis

A refugee in Italy since June 2022, the activist, co-founder in Tripoli of Refugees in Libya – one of the first community organizations defending the rights of refugees – has made it his mission to denounce European support for the Libyan authorities and to warn about the consequences of border externalization, a process by which Brussels delegates migration control to North African states in exchange for economic aid.

David Yambio regularly challenges figures in power, such as Antonio Tajani, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, questioned in the streets of Rome on the consequences of the renewal of the Italian-Libyan migration agreement in February 2023. He also participates in conferences or actions in front of places such as the European Parliament, in Brussels, or the headquarters of United Nations institutions, in Geneva. His commitment earned him the opportunity to be received at the Vatican by Pope Francis, who is sensitive to the condition of migrants.

David Yambio is in all battles. To meet him, we had to go to his town on the outskirts of Modena, in northern Italy, where he is based. Monday March 18, draped in a black peacoat, he welcomes us to a downtown café, where he orders an orange juice with the ease of a regular.

Wherever he is, at home or when traveling, he maintains a permanent link with Libya. He is in regular contact with his “comrades” from Refugees in Libya remaining there, who keep him informed of developments in the situation. His number is also circulating among strangers who wish to alert people about the violence they are experiencing. Sometimes he receives calls directly from detention centers, bringing back painful memories.

“The only wish I had when I was detained was to hear someone’s voice from the outside,” he recalls. Not necessarily to help immediately, but to let someone know. » When it is not compromising for his sources, he shares the information he has collected on social networks and happily informs activists, journalists and researchers.

The reasons for his commitment could be found in his childhood spent in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in the Central African Republic, in a second exile, after his return to his native country, South Sudan, to escape conscription in 2016 or perhaps in the abuse he suffered in Libya starting in 2018.

“I’ve been through a lot of terrible things and there have always been questions,” he says. Why is this happening to me? For smugglers and traffickers, I am just a sum of money that they can buy and sell. And for politicians, a hidden instrument that they can use as they see fit. But I am not a criminal, I am just a refugee. So I wanted to introduce these questions into the speech and raise awareness. »

“Need for solidarity”

His first actions took place in the Gargaresh district, in the west of Tripoli, where he managed to forge some links of solidarity with his Libyan neighbors. But on the night of October 1, 2021, a brutal raid by law enforcement on migrant homes left at least one dead and fifteen injured, according to Amnesty International’s report, and swept away this precarious balance. Hundreds of survivors flee and flock to the local headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the hope of getting some help.

“The next day, UNHCR started distributing emergency kits to people and children, but it wasn’t enough and the staff didn’t want us to stay there,” recalls David Yambio. That’s when I knew we had to do something. »

In the following days, more and more people converged in front of the UNHCR. The group is growing and getting organized. One committee is responsible for defending the camp against the militias, another is responsible for mediation between the eleven nationalities present. General assemblies are organized and the young activist, polyglot, then reveals himself as one of the leaders of the community. Soon, the movement made demands and broadcast them on social networks. The organization Refugees in Libya was born.

Its successes were multiple: in the weeks that followed, its representatives were received by the leaders of the UNHCR, then by the director of the Libyan anti-immigration authority, Mohammed Al-Khoja. They obtained the release of several prisoners from detention centers and the resumption of the program for evacuating the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers to third countries. The protest movement will last more than a hundred days and bring together more than 4,000 participants, according to organizers.

If David Yambio ended up reaching Italy, many protesters are still in Libya, subject to the goodwill of the various local authorities. To support them, he decided to continue his fight because, he says, “as long as there is violence, there will be this strong need for solidarity.”