In Libya, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are working to care for migrants and refugees in the Bani Walid region and in detention centers in Khoms and Misrata. Here, MSF head of mission Christophe Biteau shares his analysis of the current situation.
Since the end of 2017, European, African, and Libyan officials have made a number of declarations about putting an end to the ordeal suffered by migrants and refugees in Libya. Has anything come of them?
The principal measure, facilitated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has primarily consisted of stepping up so-called “voluntary” returns of people from Libya to their countries of origin. A distinction should be made between two different situations in the current context. There are migrants detained in “official” centers and migrants who are abducted and held in clandestine prisons.
In November, there were close to 17,000 detainees in the first category. Their so-called “emergency evacuation” began several months ago and, since November 2017, around 15,000 of them have been repatriated. That’s a positive development when it allows people trapped in Libya and really wanting to return home to do so. All the same, we have to question the voluntary nature of these repatriations, given the arbitrary detentions that leave people no other alternative.
As for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the organization has evacuated just over 1,000 of the most vulnerable among the refugees. Most have been taken to Niger, where they wait for another country to provide them asylum.
The majority of the over 50,000 people registered with UNHCR in Libya are from Syria and have been in the country for some time, but there are many more refugees and asylum-seekers passing through Libya who remain under the radar. They are among the ones who are abducted, locked up, sometimes even murdered. It’s difficult to estimate their number but, according to some observers, there are 700,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the country.
Has anything about the situation changed during your time in Libya?The main change we’ve seen is a fall in the number of people held in official detention centers to between 4,000 and 5,000. This has made detention conditions a little less unbearable than they were six months ago, [easing] the problems caused by overcrowding. But so many problems still have to be addressed, and the very few international organizations deployed in the country are almost exclusively based in Tripoli and are blind to them.
Our teams providing medical care and support in several Libyan detention centers meet detainees who tell them they’re still waiting for assistance and they don’t know what’s going to become of them. The graffiti on their cell walls reflects only too well their uncertainty.
But most of all, nothing’s being done to put an end to the ordeals suffered by migrants and refugees mainly outside official detention centers. In addition, people who risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean in an attempt to leave Libya are still, with the help of European states, being brought back to the country, where they find themselves exposed to all kinds of violence.
Let’s say you’re a young person crossing the Mediterranean in an attempt to get to Europe, and your boat is intercepted by the Libyan coast guard. What happens in this situation?People intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard are disembarked on the Libyan coast and taken to detention centers. UNHCR and IOM teams have divided up between them the 12 disembarkation sites [where] they have access and [are able to] conduct health assessments. The survivors are then, in theory, taken away to detention centers.
There’s no specific provision for the most vulnerable who, at this point, should be given special treatment and not be subjected to arbitrary detention that jeopardizes their health even more. We’re still seeing young children [taken] from boats intercepted at sea and brought to detention centers.
It also must be said that the distinction between official and clandestine networks is not always that clear. Anything can happen. Someone brought back from sea to Libya can all too soon end up once again in the clutches of people traffickers and the torture can begin all over again.
For many people, being sent back to the country they came from is not an option, and criminal networks are their only alternative to be able to find refuge and a better life in Europe. These networks, which Europe claims to be dismantling, have a monopoly on organizing the movements of very vulnerable people who have no other alternative. Why are Eritreans—90 percent of whose asylum claims are accepted in Europe—obliged to embark on such hazardous and arduous journeys? Doing everything to detain or return to Libya people seeking to flee just leads to even more suffering.
How widespread is the trafficking? There’s been talk of an industry of abduction and torture in Libya. Is this the case?We have no way of saying how many people are held in clandestine prisons, but kidnapping migrants and refugees and using torture to obtain ransoms is not only widespread, it’s probably increasing. It replaces incomes from local economies impacted by the lack of cash in Libyan banks. Those who survive the clandestine prisons are financially, physically, and mentally ruined. And, if it’s ever going to be possible, they need time and support to recover.
MSF doesn’t have access to clandestine prisons but assists people who manage to escape. For example, we work with a local nongovernmental organization to provide primary care in a migrant shelter in Bani Walid.
Some migrants have legs broken in several places, burn injuries, and severely beaten backs. Libyans working alongside us are as horrified as we are. While it’s impossible to say how many migrants and refugees arrive in Libya, pass through Bani Walid, and endure this nightmare, we’re treating just as many survivors during our consultations as last year.
Just last week a survivor who’d arrived at the hostel the previous day told us, “I’ve endured two months, three weeks, one day, and twelve hours of hell.” Although their health often requires them to be hospitalized, admission is often delayed because public hospitals oblige us to test patients beforehand for infectious diseases.
Every month we give 50 body bags to a local organization that wants to give a decent burial to migrants and refugees found dead in the Bani Walid area. They say they’ve buried over 730 bodies since last year. But we can’t conclude that this corresponds to the number of people who have died from the atrocities and dangers endured passing through this specific area. The death toll is definitely much higher.
PUBLISHED ON MSF ON MAY 15, 2018
Libya: Time Running Out For Hundreds of Migrants and Refugees in Dangerously Overcrowded Detention Center
Hundreds of migrants and refugees are being held in a dangerously overcrowded detention center in Libya, without adequate food or water and in inhumane conditions, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today.
Roughly 800 migrant and refugee men, women, and children are detained in the detention center in the port city of Zuwara, many of whom have been held for more than five months. The situation is deteriorating daily as more refugees and migrants are arbitrarily detained, including more than 500 people in the last 15 days alone. The number held far exceeds the center's capacity, with floor space so limited it is barely possible to lie down.
"The situation is critical," said Karline Kleijer, MSF emergency program manager. "We strongly urge all international agencies with a presence in Libya, representatives from the countries of origin, and the Libyan authorities to do everything they can to find a solution for these people over the next few days."
Since April 18, an MSF emergency team has provided health care to the detainees in the center.
On May 1, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR airlifted 88 people in need of international protection from Zuwara to another detention center in Tripoli in order to identify the most vulnerable individuals for potential evacuation abroad. The Libyan authorities have transferred some people to other detention centers in an attempt to reduce the extreme overcrowding, and the International Organization for Migration has started a process of "voluntary humanitarian return" for some detainees. However, there is no solution in sight for many of the estimated 800 people who remain in the detention center in Zuwara.
A large number of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers in Zuwara have already endured alarming levels of violence and exploitation in Libya and during harrowing journeys from their home countries. Many are from eastern or western African countries, but some are from as far away as southern Asia. Some were malnourished on their arrival to the center as they had been held captive by smuggling networks in the area.
"MSF calls again for an end to the arbitrary detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya," Kleijer said.
Published on MSF on May 3, 2018
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) continued to provide medical assistance to refugees and migrants along the Central Mediterranean route throughout the last months of 2017. At sea, the dedicated search and rescue vessel Aquarius, run by MSF in cooperation with humanitarian organization SOS MEDITERRANEE, rescued 3,645 people from unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean and brought them to ports of safety in Italy.
At disembarkation, MSF provided psychological first aid after tragic rescues in addition to running several mental health and health care projects in Sicily. In Libya, MSF teams provided medical assistance to refugees and migrants arbitrarily held in detention centers nominally under the control of the Ministry of Interior.
Libya: Dismal Conditions in Detention Centers Hinder Medical Treatment
In Tripoli, a massive increase in the number of people detained in October and November 2017 resulted in extreme overcrowding and a dramatic deterioration of conditions inside the capital’s detention centers. In some locations, up to 2,000 men were crammed together in one cell without enough floor space to lie down.
Not only did overcrowding make it physically impossible at times for MSF teams to enter the cells and triage the people detained inside, it further increased tension and violence. MSF team members were harassed and threatened, and patients experienced violence and mistreatment. From September to December 2017 the MSF team treated more than 76 people for violence-related injuries, including broken limbs, electrical burns, and gunshot wounds.
The team was able to help only a small percentage of all those in need of urgent treatment and it was not possible to follow up on medical cases. Even so, more than 6,500 medical consultations in detention centers were carried out from September to December 2017.
Most medical complaints were related to the conditions of detention, with overcrowding and inadequate latrine and drinking water provision resulting in acute upper respiratory tract infections, musculoskeletal pain, and acute watery diarrhea. MSF teams tried to focus on the most vulnerable people, such as pregnant women, children under five years old, and people with life-threatening or potentially life-threatening complaints. A 24-hour emergency referral service was implemented, with more than 150 patients referred to hospital for further medical treatment.
The number of detainees dropped in December when thousands of people were repatriated to their countries of origin by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Conditions inside detention centers in Tripoli improved and there was less mistreatment and violence against patients. In the detention centers that MSF visits, teams are now able to access cells to provide medical care to refugees and migrants that remain in arbitrary detention. However, most of the physical and mental health problems requiring medical assistance still stem from the substandard detention conditions.
Few international organizations are able to work in Libya due to widespread violence and insecurity. Those who do—including MSF—do not have full and unhindered access to all detention centers where refugees and migrants are being held. It is not possible to provide meaningful medical care in a system of arbitrary detention that causes harm and suffering.
An overwhelming number of detainees have already endured alarming levels of violence and exploitation in Libya and during harrowing journeys from their home countries. As such, MSF reiterates its call for an end to the arbitrary detention of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants in Libya.
Aquarius Continues Sea Rescues as Numbers Attempting Mediterranean Crossing FallIn the central Mediterranean, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants rescued at sea and brought to safety in Italy has fallen since last year. The search-and-rescue ship Aquarius recovered 3,645 people from September to December 2017, compared to 5,608 during the same period in 2016.
This drop in numbers appears to be due to fewer boats leaving Libya. Reasons for this are unclear, though likely factors include the weather and political developments on the ground in Libya. There have been media reports that local militias are being paid off by Italy to prevent departures. Italian ships have been deployed in Libyan territorial waters as part of a broader European strategy to seal off the coast of Libya and “contain” refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants in a country where they are exposed to extreme and widespread violence and exploitation.
Onboard Aquarius, MSF medics treated people for injuries they suffered in Libya and heard their accounts of violence and abuse at the hands of smugglers, armed groups, and militias. Around 12 percent of all women rescued were pregnant and were cared for by an MSF midwife. There was a high prevalence of severe skin infections that required treatment with antibiotics and many patients suffered from severe chemical burns.
As winter approached, teams also treated multiple cases of hypothermia among those rescued. Rough sea conditions caused huge swells to crash over the aft deck of the ship, soaking people sleeping there. In November, 588 people were rescued but an unknown number drowned after an overcrowded inflatable dinghy suddenly capsized mid-rescue. The team on Aquarius launched all available floatation devices and life jackets and pulled as many people from the sea as they could, but it was not possible to save everyone. No bodies were recovered.
A Challenging Rescue Environment, and An Unclear Future for Refugees
Carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean is becoming increasingly challenging and complex. People who manage to escape Libya are increasingly being turned back at sea, with the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard active in international waters. The MSF team on Aquarius witnessed refugees and migrants aboard unseaworthy vessels being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard in international waters as EU military assets at the scene looked on. On October 31, November 24, and December 8, Aquarius was instructed to stand by and the crew was forced to watch as hundreds of people were pushed back to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard.
Although these interceptions are presented as “rescue operations” and are celebrated by the Libyan Coastguard and their EU partners, the reality is that migrants and refugees are not being returned to a port of safety. The crimes committed against refugees and migrants in Libya are widely known and have generated international outrage. Under no circumstances should migrants and refugees aboard vessels in distress in international waters be returned to Libya—they must be brought to a port of safety.
In September, Aquarius was instructed to conduct three rescues in international waters under the coordination of the Libyan Coastguard. These unprecedented and highly unusual instructions from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome presented MSF with an impossible choice. Fortunately for each rescue, Aquarius was able to render the necessary assistance and took all rescued men, women, and children to a port of safety in Italy.
In that situation, it was not possible to verify who exactly was coordinating rescue operations, as there are several entities operating along Libya’s vast coastline that claim to be the Libyan Coastguard. Contact points on land and at sea were unclear, as was the chain of command. As there have also been numerous violent incidents in recent months between the Libyan Coastguard and the few other remaining humanitarian organizations running dedicated search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean, the security of our team was paramount during these interactions.
It’s unclear what the future holds for refugees and migrants traveling the Central Mediterranean route, but with Libya riven by widespread violence and insecurity, with no unified government, a plethora of armed groups, and active fighting ongoing in several parts of the country, it does not look like an end to their suffering is in sight.
MSF has worked in Libya since 2011, providing medical consultations and referrals to refugees and migrants held in several detention centers nominally under the control of the Ministry of Interior. MSF works in centers in Tripoli, Khoms, and Misrata and, in partnership with a local association, provides care to those who have survived and managed to escape from informal places of captivity in the Bani Walid area. MSF also runs a primary health care clinic in Misrata and supports women and child health activities in Benghazi.
Published on MSF on January 30, 2018
The European Union is working with Libyan coastguards to reduce the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. But many of those intercepted end up in detention centres in Libya, where some migrants say they are used as slaves, as the BBC's Stephanie Hegarty found when she spoke to some Nigerians who have just returned home.
As evening falls on Benin City, outside the mildewed 1960s block of one of the city's many hotels, a group of men and women are sitting on a scattering of plastic chairs, under a sign advertising "exotic cocktails" and "groovy nights".
But they are not here for drinks or dancing, they are about to start the hard work of rebuilding their lives.
They have come from Libya, where most of them were held in detention centres by the Libyan authorities. And they have returned with accounts of horrifying abuse, including being leased or sold as slaves.
'They gave us to their friends'Agen Akhere has a round, baby-face but his small eyes are searing red. He is sniffling as he talks, and looks like he might well up with tears.
He was held for two months in a detention centre in a place called Gharyan. He was registered by the UN's migration agency (IOM), released from the detention centre and flown home - but his friend did not make it.
"It's because of money," he said, pleading and craning his neck to get closer to the microphone. "My friend, he's still there. His name is Samson. He's still there, in Gharyan."
Gharyan is a prison in the mountains about 100km (60 miles) south of Tripoli. And it is a place where all of the migrants we spoke to were taken before they made it home.
Again and again they tell the same story, of detainees horrifically abused by prison guards, starved, beaten, raped - and traded as slaves.
"They come to our caravans [cells], they pick six persons to do their dirty jobs to do farming, brick-laying work," says Lucky Akhanene. He returned in the same group as Mr Akhere and was held in Gharyan for four months.
"They give us out to their friends. They don't pay us. It's just hard labour, if you're not fast with your job you get beaten."
Three separate people spoke about being leased out by the prison for day labour like this. Others said they were sold.
Jackson Uwumarogie and Felix Efe were arrested "on top of the sea", off the coast of Libya and taken to Gharyan.
They said one night a prison guard came and counted out 20 men, he took them outside and blindfolded them.
Mr Uwumarogie overheard the men talking about a price - 1,000 dinars ($735; £550). They were put into a van and taken to a farm.
Mr Uwumarogie and Mr Efe were forced to work harvesting onions and feeding cattle. They slept in a plywood hut and were guarded day and night by men with guns. They were never paid.
Mr Uwumarogie's baggy tracksuit bottoms hang from his tiny waist and a tight woollen polo neck highlights his skinny frame and slightly puffy, swollen cheeks.
He is clearly not well. On the farm they were only given food every few days, he said, and sometimes given sea water to drink.
After six months they and five others were loaded into a pick-up truck and taken to the desert.
"They dumped us there," Mr Uwumarogie said. They were there for two days.
"It was with the help of God that we found the man that rescued us." The man brought them to his house and then took them to Tripoli to meet the IOM.
Stories of black slavery in Libya have been circulating for the past two years. But the number of accounts we heard from recent returnees seems to suggest it has become endemic in the detention system.
And it is tied to something that has been going on for much longer: a dark but thriving industry in which migrants are extorted for money by traffickers and prison guards.
Wrists tied with barbed wire"There was a connection man who normally has a connection to the Mudeen, that is director of the prison. He would call them and he would bail them out," Mac Agheyere said.
He left for Europe in 2015 and was arrested and taken to prison in the Libyan town of Zawiya. "I had no-one to bail me out."
He explained that the middleman would charge up to 250,000 naira ($695; £520) per person.
Mr Aghayere borrowed money from his family in Nigeria to pay for his own release but he was arrested again. This time he could not afford to pay but one day a man came, who paid it for him.
"I thought he was my Messiah," Mr Aghayere said. "I never knew he was an evil person."
The man owned a carwash and some beach huts by the sea. He said Mr Aghayere should work for a month to pay back the release money.
After that, they agreed on a salary. But two months later he refused to pay. Another month went by and he refused to work any longer.
"He beat me with an iron bar," he says. "They took barbed wire and tied my hands and my feet and threw me inside a car and took me back to prison."
Mr Aghayere was told he was being sent back to Nigeria but he was transferred to Gharyan prison and spent seven months there before he was repatriated by the IOM. He said in the time he was there he saw 20 people die.
Again and again we heard stories of horrific abuse at Gharyan prison.
Each of the Nigerian migrants we met, separately, told us that they were given very little food - a piece of bread smaller than the palm of their hand in the morning and watery pasta in the evening. Some said they drank water from the toilet. They were regularly rounded up and beaten.
"They beat boys," Fatima Atewe said. She was one of the only women who agreed to speak to us about what happened in Gharyan.
"Even in prison in Nigeria, they don't beat Nigerian people the way they beat Nigerian people there."
"Many people are dying there day and night. And their cold is not good, their cold is like inside a fridge," Ms Atewe added.
She spent just over 10 days in Gharyan before she was repatriated. She had been arrested with a friend and after three days in prison she said, her friend was sold.
The UN's migration agency, together with various African governments are working to get migrants home. But delegates from each country have to get to the detention centres before they can identify their citizens.
Libya is in the middle of a civil war. With many different militia groups vying for power, travelling beyond Tripoli is dangerous.
'Inhumane'The prison at Gharyan is run by Libya's Ministry of Interior which itself is run by two militia groups.
The Ministry of the Interior is only nominally under the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. As of yet, the Libyan Interior Ministry hasn't responded to requests for an interview.
In recent months, the situation has become increasingly lawless but also on the rise is the numbers of migrants being held in these prisons.
The EU is encouraging Libya to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. It has been training the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats leaving Libyan waters.
Arrivals to Italy have fallen by 70%. But many of the migrants who are stopped end up in detention centres like Gharyan.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres says the numbers of migrants in the Libyan detention centres that it has access to have increased tenfold since July, when these policies began.
The UN's human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Hussein has described the policy as "inhumane".
As more and more migrants pile into these centres, conditions will only get worse. The stories of abuse will keep coming. Those that return come with a warning.
"I just want to plead with everyone out there," Lucky Akhanene said. "Libya is not a place to go.
"Most times I wonder if Libya is not from this earth."
Published on BBC News on January 2, 2018
The European Union’s (EU) support for Libya’s Coast Guard which has resulted in thousands of migrants being detained in “horrific” conditions inside Libya is “inhuman,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday.
Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein sounded the alarm after a probe by UN monitors who visited migrants held in State detention centres in Libya at the start of the month.
From 1 to 6 November, UN human rights monitors visited four Department of Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) facilities in Tripoli, where they interviewed detainees who have fled conflict, persecution and extreme poverty from States across Africa and Asia, according to the High Commissioner’s Office (OHCHR).
“Monitors were shocked by what they witnessed: thousands of emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of one another, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity,” OHCHR spokesperson told reporters today in Geneva.
Detainees at the centres said they are often beaten or prodded with electric sticks if they ask for food and medicine. There are no functioning toilets in the hangar-like facilities and the detainees find it ‘difficult to survive the smell of urine and feces.’ Rape and other sexual violence appear commonplace.
The EU is providing assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean. This includes in international waters, despite concerns raised by rights groups that this would condemn more migrants to arbitrary and indefinite detention and expose them to forced labour or extortion. According to OHCHR, those detained have no possibility to challenge the legality of their detention, and no access to legal aid.
Nearly 20,000 people are in custody now, up from about 7,000 in mid-September.
The spike in numbers came after authorities detained thousands of migrants following clashes in Sabratha, a smuggling and trafficking hub, about 80 kilometres west of Tripoli.
“We cannot be a silent witness to modern day slavery, rape and other sexual violence, and unlawful killings in the name of managing migration and preventing desperate and traumatized people from reaching Europe’s shores,” said High Commissioner Zeid.
His Office has urged the Libyan authorities to stamp out human rights violations in centres under their control, while also calling on the international community not to turn a blind eye to the “unimaginable horrors” endured by migrants in Libya.
Published on UN News Centre on November 14, 2017.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor expressed alarm on Monday at the inhumane detention of thousands of vulnerable migrants in Libya and said she was examining whether an investigation could be opened into crimes against them.
Libya is the main gateway for migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea. The United Nations migration agency said more than 1,000 migrants have been reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean this year, while an unknown number perish in the desert.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 20,000 migrants are held by criminal gangs in irregular detention centers in Libya and growing numbers of migrants are traded in what they call slave markets before being held for ransom, forced labor or sexual exploitation.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the United Nations Security Council that her office was collecting and analyzing information "related to serious and widespread crimes allegedly committed against migrants attempting to transit through Libya."
"I take this opportunity before the council to declare that my office is carefully examining the feasibility of opening an investigation into migrant-related crimes in Libya should the court's jurisdictional requirements be met," Bensouda said.
The United Nations Security Council asked the court in 2011 to investigate crimes committed since the start of an uprising the same year that led to the fall of leader Muammar Gaddafi. The oil-producing North African state slipped into turmoil and been riven by factional strife since then.
The International Criminal Court, which opened in 2002, has international jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in member states or if a situation is referred by the U.N. Security Council.
Published on Reuters' website on May 8, 2017.