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Lives in limbo in Libyan detention centres

03 Apr 2017

Since the end of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 fighting between militias has plunged Libya into civil war. The insecurity, economic collapse, and breakdown of law and order make daily life a struggle for many Libyans. The situation is even more difficult for the hundreds of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who enter or transit the country after fleeing conflict, extreme poverty or persecution in their home nations. The breakdown in the justice system has led to a state of impunity, in which armed groups, criminal gangs, smugglers and traffickers control the flow of migrants through the country.

  • Libya remains the main transit and departure point from North Africa towards Europe for migrants and refugees.1
  • There are some 37,000 registered asylum seekers and refugees in Libya, originating mostly from Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine, Sudan, and Syria.
  • The above number represents approximately half of Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake for a country that has 1/62 of the population, 1/5 the size3 (or the size of Queensland), and significant less resources and stability.
  • In addition, there are over 435,000 internally displaced people (IDPs)4
  • 168,542 migrants arrived in Italy from Libya and 4,164 are known to have died at sea (IOM: Jan-Nov 2016). In 2015, there were 144,205 arrivals and 3,565 deaths at sea. The actual number is likely to be higher.

Many people end up in government run detention centres in and around Tripoli. The absence of a functioning asylum system in Libya means that people seeking international protection cannot be processed in a fair and efficient way and in accordance with international and regional refugee law. They have no way to challenge the legality of their detention, virtually no access to the outside world, and often suffer ill treatment and a lack of access to medical care.

Inhumane and unsanitary conditions

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is working in seven detention centres in and around Tripoli which do not meet any national, regional or international standards. While conditions vary, there is little natural light or ventilation and many facilities are dangerously overcrowded. The people MSF have seen are detained arbitrarily in inhumane and unsanitary conditions, often without enough food and clean water, and with a lack of access to medical care. MSF have been providing medical care to these detainees since July 2016.

Since 2014 MSF, other NGOs, as well as navy and coast guard vessels have been conducting search and rescue operations to prevent further deaths at sea. MSF alone has rescued more than 50,000 men, women and children and has documented many firsthand accounts of the alarming level of violence and exploitation these people experienced in Libya5. Sadly, those intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coastguard or detained inside Libya before reaching safety are sent to these migrant detention centres.

Pushing people back to Libya

Libya is both a transit and destination country for migrants. In the past, people migrating who were intercepted in international waters were returned to Libya, whereas the current policy of the European Union (EU) is that no person rescued by an EU vessel shall be taken to Libya.

However, in early Feb 2017 at the ‘Declaration of Malta’6 it was decided that the EU will train and equip Libyan coastguards ultimately to intercept boats before returning them to Libya. The EU wants to ensure “adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants” assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Mr Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF Holland’s General Director, has recently returned from Tripoli after visiting people detained in the Libyan capital. Hehenkamp said the EU’s decision is not humane: “What will happen in practice is that by claiming to save lives on the Mediterranean and pushing people back into hellish detention centres which are in Libya today, they are not solving the problem, and they are most likely exacerbating one”.

In the past two months, shortages of food in the detention centres has become a real concern – MSF is seeing an increase of adults suffering from malnutrition, making people more susceptible to disease and acute illness. Numbers are concerning for a country not suffering from drought or natural disaster. MSF is supporting access to drinking water and latrines, which is another concern for detainees. Sometimes they have less than one litre of water per person per day. Access to latrines or showers is also severely limited, resulting in high rates of skin infections and infestations of lice, scabies and fleas.

It is a difficult choice to work in an environment where people are kept in conditions without human dignity, with no immediate prospect to improve their situation, and with no idea why, or for how long, they will be detained. However, MSF’s hope is that, by being present and providing medical care, there will be immediate improvement in detainees' living conditions. In the longer term governments must ensure more humane processing whilst taking meaningful action to address the causes of forced migration and human trafficking.

1 DTM Libya Flow Monitoring Analysis, September – October 2016 report, p.9, International Organization for Migration. 
2 6.3M people
3 1.7M km2 vs 1.8M km2