Migrant (39) who failed to reach Europe dies in Libyan detention centre

A growing list of refugees and migrants have died after being forced back to Libya

A 39-year-old man who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe has died in a remote migrant detention centre in Libya, adding to a mounting list of deaths there, as conditions worsen due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Eritrean Tewelde Andom died in mid-May. Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said the cause seemed to be heatstroke; on the day he died, temperatures in Zintan detention centre reached 42 degrees.

Mr Andom tried to cross the sea in early 2018, according to fellow detainees, but he was caught by the Libyan coastguard, which is funded by the European Union to intercept migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe. The previous year Mr Andom had escaped Eritrea, a dictatorship known for serious human rights abuses, after spending nearly two decades doing military service.

Friends described him as a kind and funny man, saying he used to joke that they must have been sinners to have been locked up rather than allowed reach safety. He had three children, all of whom are still in Eritrea.


His death adds to the growing list of refugees and migrants who have died after being forced back to Libya while trying to make the journey to Europe. In Zintan detention centre alone, 25 people, including women and children, have died since September 2018 – most recently a 24-year-old man, who died during a fire March.

Supply delays

More than 3,000 men, women, and children have been returned to Libya by the coastguard this year, including aroundbout 400 over the past three days.

Libya now has 75 confirmed cases of coronavirus. While the pandemic is not believed to have reached detention centres, restrictions on movement have led to delays in food and other supplies. Detainees in Zintan said they were rationing food and fresh water.

According to the UN refugee agency, there are 1,200 people being held in migrant detention centres aligned with the UN-backed, Tripoli-based government. Hundreds of others have recently been put out on the streets after years locked up, and are struggling to survive in the middle of a war zone. Conflict has been raging in Tripoli since April 2019.

“We don’t have money for shelter and there are problems searching for a house. We don’t have a mattress, clothes and other materials,” one Eritrean man told The Irish Times last week.

The UN says the coronavirus pandemic, combined with movement restrictions and the worsening conflict, is driving more refugees and migrants to turn to smugglers. "There is no safety here," said one Eritrean, who was planning to set out to sea soon.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

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