Women and children were among the migrants intercepted and returned to Libya on February 10, 2021 | Photo: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua/Imago Images
Women and children were among the migrants intercepted and returned to Libya on February 10, 2021 | Photo: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua/Imago Images

Some 350 African migrants, including over 100 children, have reportedly been freed from a secret prison in southeast Libya. The UN migration agency, IOM, said many of them were malnourished and had been abused.

Libyan authorities on Sunday raided a secret prison in a southeastern city used by human traffickers and freed at least 156 African migrants, the Associated Press (AP) reported on Monday (February 22).

The UN migration agency IOM told InfoMigrants that as many as 351 migrants – 189 men, 145 children and 17 women – were rescued. Some of them were "malnourished and in need of health assistance as many experienced abuse," said IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli.

After receiving health assistance, they were taken to the detention center in Kufra, where they were given food, clothes and blankets, Msehli said.

"This highlights once more the need to prosecute criminal groups that are taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of migrants and exploiting them," Msehli told InfoMigrants. "We also maintain that alternatives to detention must be found to provide safeguards for people."

AP reported that the raid in the city of Kufra took place on Sunday "after a migrant managed to escape a house-turned-prison last week." He then told authorities that he and other migrants were held and tortured by traffickers there, according to the Kufra Security Bureau.

Security forces arrested at least six traffickers and referred them to prosecutors for further investigation, the bureau said.

According to Msehli, the vast majority of the migrants are from Eritrea and Sudan while around 60 are from Somalia and Chad.

Torture centers

Rights groups say migrants returned to Libya are often left at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers without adequate food and water.

Last September, an armed group reportedly kidnapped 60 migrants, including 24 children. According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), they were held hostage in "appalling living conditions."

An AP investigation in 2019 found that "militias in Libya tortured, extorted and otherwise abused migrants for ransoms in detention centers under the nose of the UN, often in compounds that receive millions in European money, paid to Libya's government to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean."

According to IOM and UNHCR insiders, some 3,200 people were being held in eleven detention centers in Libya last October.

Intercepted and returned

The raid at the secret prison comes as the IOM said Monday that some 3,600 migrants, including around 190 children, had been intercepted and returned to Libya since the beginning of the year.

"Like previous ones, those migrants were taken to squalid detention centers in and around Tripoli. Thousands of migrants have already been confined in these centers, mostly run by militias linked to authorities in Tripoli," AP reported.

IOM's Missing Migrants Project said it has recorded 118 deaths of migrants in the central Mediterranean so far this year, around the same number as last year during the same period.

In January, at least 43 migrants died off the coast of Libya, in what has been described as the first major shipwreck in the area this year, when a boat carrying migrants capsized.

The IOM and the UN refugee agency UNHCR have repeatedly called for an "urgent and measurable shift in the approach'' to the situation in the Mediterranean, including an end to migrant returns to "unsafe'' Libya.

Major transit country

Libya has become the major transit point for African and Arab migrants hoping to reach Europe since the overthrow of longtime ruler Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Traffickers have exploited the chaos and often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder on the dangerous central Mediterranean route. More than 17,000 people have drowned along the way since 2014, according to Missing Migrants Project.

Over the past years, the European Union has partnered with Libya to prevent migrants from making the journey by sea to Europe. Among other things, it has been training and funding Libya's controversial coast guard, despite a record of abuses, to prevent migrants from reaching European soil. 

In October, the UN-recognized government in Libya detained coast guard commander Abdalrahman Al-Milad in connection with human trafficking and migrant smuggling. The UN Security Council previously accused him of intentionally sinking migrant boats.

with AP


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