From file: A detention center in Tripoli | Photo: Florian Gaertner
From file: A detention center in Tripoli | Photo: Florian Gaertner

Following the deadly air strike that hit a migrant detention center in Libya’s capital Tripoli, aid organizations including MSF and UNHCR are becoming increasingly worried about and critical of the situation at refugee detention centers in Libya. They call on the EU, which is defending its course, to cancel their cooperation with Libya's coast guard.

The international community has been calling for the release of migrants in Libyan detention centers for some time. In early July, the air strike on the Tajura refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital Tripoli, which killed at least 53 and injured a further 130, underscored the vulnerability of the mainly African migrants there.

Now, Doctors without Borders (MSF), UNHCR and other aid organizations have sharpened their tone against the shocking conditions migrants and refugees at Libya’s detention centers have to endure. The NGOs have called on the European Union to terminate their cooperation with Libyan authorities to prevent migrants from reaching Europe's shores by boat and repatriate them to Libya.

NGOs largely blame the agreement between the EU member states and Libya's coast guard for the plight of African migrants in Libya. Since January, over 2,300 people have been intercepted at sea and brought back to the northern African country, according to the UN.

Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete also chimed in on Monday, demanding the EU to take in all refugees currently in Libya. Half a million people “in the hands of human traffickers” or in Libyan refugee camps must be liberated, she said. 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that at least 5,200 people are currently being held in 24 official detention centers across Libya. Most of them come from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.

It’s unknown how many are being held in illegal camps in the war-torn country.

After the deadly air strike in early July, the Libyan authorities opened the gates to Tajoura and released the remaining migrants. Last week, the Libyan authorities were pondering whether or not to release migrants in other centers across the country, too. The prospect of the migrants' release does not seem immediate, however, given that evacuation plans would be needed, which is expected to take some time. 

Horrendous conditions

“Those interned there, mainly refugees, keep dying of diseases and hunger,” said Julien Raickmann, Doctors without Borders (MSF) chief in Libya. “They are victims of violence, rape and arbitrary treatment at the hands of militias,” Raickmann added.

Benjamin Gaudin of aid organization Première Urgence Internationale (PUI) echoed Raickmann’s statement. “Sometimes, the refugees are literally piled up on top of each other, under horrendous hygienic conditions and with great difficulty to access water,” Gaudin said. “Every now and then, there’s no drinking water whatsoever.”

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special emissary for the central Mediterranean area, said the EU couldn’t just continue with the agreed repatrations. “In a sense, the European countries are blind to the situation of migrants in Libya.”

The youngest fighting in Libya had exacerbated the situation, Cochetel added, referring to the offensive Libyan general Khalifa Haftar launched in April to capture Tripoli. More than one thousand people have died as a result, according to UN estimates.

Haftar’s troops are also being blamed for the air strike on the refugee camp at the beginning of July.

Torture and desperation

In February, footage released by British Channel 4 from camps run by human traffickers caused worldwide horror: In one clip, a man is seen lying on the ground and screaming in pain from a blow torch directed at the soles of his feet.

Another man was hanging head-down from the ceiling with a gun pointed at him. The militias were hoping to extort money from the victims’ families.

Desperation among the refugees was so great that in May, a man jumped off his shaky boat into the sea when he saw Liyba's coast guard approaching. German private sea rescue organization Sea-Watch recorded the situation.

EU defends course of action

Rejecting the criticism, the EU said the agreement had significantly reduced the number of refugee arrivals in Italy. For roughly a year, the Southern European country no longer allows private rescue boats to dock at its harbors.

The European Commission (EC) also defended the course of action, arguing that some €336 million have been collected since 2014 for programs in connection with migrants in Libya.

“We are extremely concerned about the deterioration of the situation on the ground,” EC speaker Natasha Bertaud said. Moreover, the EC wasn’t capable of acting as individual EU member states weren’t able to agree on a common approach, Bertaud said.

However, the Council of European last month called for an end of the cooperation with Libya's coast guard amid the devastating conditions.

Libya's coast guard, meanwhile, argued that Libya was a “victim” of the migration flows. General Ajub Kacem said refugees were a “burden” for the country. He accused the EU of "lacking concern" for refugees’ fate.

With material from AFP


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