- ticket title
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If someone escapes hell, how can you grab them and take them back to hell?
– Bamba, a 31-year-old from Ivory Coast who reached Italy in October 2016
Soft-spoken Abdul left Darfur in 2016 when he was eighteen. He went to Egypt, where he registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR but, despairing of being resettled, Abdul decided to go to Libya to attempt the journey to safety in Europe. He spent three months in a smuggler warehouse in Sebratha but there too he endured “very much suffering,” and escaped to Tripoli. It would only be in early May 2018 that, in the early hours of the morning, he finally crammed himself into a rubber boat with over 100 people and set off from Khoms, a coastal city east of Tripoli. Their journey was short; the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted the rubber boat after roughly four hours at sea.
When we spoke in mid-July, he was recovering from what he described as torture by the guards in al-Karareem detention center near Misrata, where he had been detained in abysmal, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions for two months. He said guards beat him on the bottom of his feet with a hose to make him confess to helping three men escape. Abdul’s hopes were thread-bare; he wished only to be transferred to a detention center in Tripoli, where he hoped he would have more access to UN agencies that might help him.
Abdul’s experience encapsulates the struggle, dashed hopes, and suffering of so many migrants and asylum seekers in Libya today: beholden to unscrupulous smugglers, captive to a market that exploits the most basic human needs for survival and dignity, victims of indifference or downright hostility to people in need of protection and safety.
In July 2018, Human Rights Watch researchers visited four detention centers in Tripoli, Misrata, and Zuwara where they documented inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate healthcare, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and use of electric shocks.
Migrant children are as much at risk as adults of being detained in Libya. Human Rights Watch witnessed large numbers of children, including newborns, detained in grossly unsuitable conditions in Ain Zara, Tajoura and Misrata detention centers. They and their caretakers, including breast-feeding mothers, lack adequate nourishment. Healthcare for children, as for adults, is absent or severely insufficient. There are no regular, organized activities for children, play areas or any kind of schooling. Almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya in the first nine months of 2018 were children under the age of 18. Children are also not exempt from abuses; we documented allegations of rape and beatings of children by guards and smugglers.
Because it is indefinite and not subject to judicial review, immigration detention in Libya is arbitrary under international law.
Senior EU officials are aware of the plight facing migrants detained in Libya. In November 2017, EU migration commissioner, Dimitri Avramopoulos, said, “We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya.” He and other senior EU officials have repeatedly asserted that the EU wants to improve conditions in Libyan detention in recognition of grave and widespread abuses. However, Human Rights Watch interviews with detainees, detention center staff, Libyan officials, and humanitarian actors revealed that EU efforts to improve conditions and treatment in official detention centers have had a negligible impact.
Instead, European Union (EU) migration cooperation with Libya is contributing to a cycle of extreme abuse. The EU is providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard to enable it to intercept migrants and asylum seekers at sea after which they take them back to Libya to arbitrary detention, where they face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labor.
Since 2016, the EU has intensified efforts to prevent boat departures from Libya. EU policy-makers and leaders justify this focus as a political and practical necessity to assert control over Europe’s external borders and “break the business model of smugglers,” as well as a humanitarian imperative to prevent dangerous boat migration. In reality, the externalization approach has the effect of avoiding the legal responsibilities that arise when migrants and asylum seekers reach EU territory by outsourcing migration control.
EU institutions and member states have poured millions of euros into programs to beef up the capacity of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord—one of two competing authorities in Libya, and one whose power rests largely on fungible alliances with militias and no real control over territory—to intercept boats leaving Libya and detain those intercepted in detention centers where they face appalling conditions. Italy—the EU country where the majority of migrants departing Libya arrive—has taken the lead in providing material and technical assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard and abdicated virtually all responsibility for coordination of rescue operations at sea in a bid to limit the number of people arriving on its shores.
Legal and bureaucratic obstacles have blocked most nongovernmental rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. While Mediterranean departures have decreased since mid-2017, the chances of dying in waters off the coast of Libya significantly increased from 1 in 42 in 2017 to 1 in 18 in 2018, according to UNHCR.
Clashes in Tripoli between competing armed groups in August-September 2018, which lasted for a month, presented further problems and risks for detained migrants. During the clashes—which illustrated the Government of National Accord’s fragile hold on power and caused civilian deaths and destruction to civilian structures—guards abandoned at least two detention centers as fighting drew near, leaving detainees unprotected inside. Authorities eventually transferred hundreds to other detention centers in the capital, contributing to even greater overcrowding in those centers. The fighting also temporarily interrupted EU-funded humanitarian aid to the detention centers and United Nations programs to evacuate vulnerable asylum seekers and repatriate migrants.
Since the end of 2017, the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), also a UN agency, have accelerated EU-funded programs to help asylum seekers and migrants safely leave Libya, a country with no refugee law and no asylum system. By the end of November 2018, UNHCR had evacuated 2,069 asylum seekers from Libya to a transit center in Agadez, Niger, for refugee status determination and, ultimately, resettlement to Europe and other countries. However, the program suffers from UNHCR’s limited capacity and mandate in Libya as well as from a gap between the number of resettlement places host countries are prepared to offer and the number of refugees in need. As of November 2018, UNHCR also evacuated an additional 312 directly to Italy and 95 to a UNHCR emergency transit center in Romania.
The IOM had assisted over 30,000 to return from Libya to their home countries through its “voluntary humanitarian program” between January 2017 and November 2018. While the program can be valuable in assisting people without protection needs who wish to return home safely, it cannot be described as truly voluntary as long as the only alternatives are the prospect of indefinite abusive detention in Libya or a dangerous and expensive journey across the Mediterranean.
Despite these programs, increased interceptions by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard led to an increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya. At the time of our research, in July 2018, there were between 8,000-10,000 people in official detention centers, up from 5,200 in April 2018.
The cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Libyan detention centers described in this report violate international law. Libyan authorities are accountable for these abuses and the lack of accountability for perpetrators. EU institutions are aware of the mistreatment and inhumane detention conditions in Libya for those intercepted. Indeed, the EU provides support intended to ameliorate these conditions in detention. However, even though that support has had minimal impact on the situation, the EU continues to pursue a flawed strategy to empower Libyan Coast Guards to intercept migrants and asylum seekers and take them back to Libya. Where the EU, Italy and other governments have knowingly contributed significantly to the abuses of detainees, they have been complicit in those abuses.
Neither the complexities of international migration nor the myriad challenges facing Libya today excuse the brutality visited in Libya upon migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.
Source: Humain Rights Watch