Guards shot at migrants trying to flee air strikes on Libyan detention centre

‘After the first strike hit, we knocked the door to open it but the policemen refused’

Guards shot at refugees and migrants trying to escape the Libyan migrant detention centre that was hit by air strikes on Tuesday night, according to testimonies by survivors.

“The police shot after the first strike,” said a man in the Tajoura centre, east Tripoli, who spoke to The Irish Times through the messaging service WhatsApp and asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retaliation. “We saw through the window when the [camp manager] was shooting and targeted the gun at the victims who were trying to escape or save their lives.”

“After the first strike hit, we knocked the door to open it, but the policemen refused to open the door,” said another detainee. “Then we broke the windows to get out, but, the policemen began to shoot at us, saying go back, the place is secure. One minute later, the second [strike] hit.”

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord has blamed eastern general Khalifa Haftar for launching the strikes, one day after he vowed to step up assaults on the capital. A spokesman for Gen Haftar denied this.


Survivors in Tajoura say the number of people who died on Tuesday night is far greater than the 53 confirmed by the United Nations. Five said separately they believe at least 120 people were killed, because of how many had been locked inside the centre. "They are still looking for people under the rubble," said a survivor from Darfur.

Torture and abuse

The majority of people in the hall that was hit were Africans, relatively new to the Tajoura centre, who had been arrested on the street or intercepted on the Mediterranean Sea by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard, while trying to reach Europe.

Reports of torture and abuse of detainees in Tajoura have been common, as have claims by refugees and migrants that they are forced to work in nearby weapons stores or taken from the centre by militias to help with frontline fighting.

Two weeks ago, detainees trying to escape were shot at by guards, and two were killed, according to others in the centre.

The UN Security Council held a closed meeting about the Tajoura attack, but failed to condemn it, after the US opposed the suggested wording of a statement.

Meanwhile, survivors said they had been left without food or water, and appealed for evacuation from Libya.

About 6,000 migrants and refugees are locked up in Libyan detention centres, with more than 3,000 trapped in areas affected by the conflict that began in early April, when Haftar ordered his forces to advance on Tripoli.

Returning refugees

On Wednesday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney condemned the air strikes in Tajoura and Libya's system of detention centres, saying his thoughts were with the injured and the families of those who lost their lives. Mr Coveney didn't mention the EU's involvement in returning refugees and migrants to detention centres through its policy of supporting the Libyan coastguard.

Since 2017, the EU has allocated tens of millions of euro towards training and equipping the coastguard. This comes through the EU's Trust Fund for Africa, to which Ireland has committed to giving €15 million between 2016 and 2020.

Asked about Mr Coveney’s statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said, “It is not EU policy to send people back to Libya, but rather to disrupt the business model of migrant smugglers or traffickers, so as to prevent further loss of life in the Mediterranean.”

In a separate development, at least 80 people were feared missing on Thursday after a boat sank off the coast of Tunisia. Three survivors said they had set off from Zuwara, a departure point in Libya for migrants and refugees hoping to reach Europe.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa