Libya: Caring for Migrants and Refugees “Enduring Hell” in Detention

May 14, 2018

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.