Refugees experience ‘catalogue of cruelty’ when intercepted and returned to Libya

Amnesty says 8,500 men, women and children returned to Libya this year were locked up, ‘disappeared’ or sent to detention centres

A new Amnesty International report has highlighted the "catalogue of cruelty" that refugees and migrants are experiencing in Libya, particularly since the pandemic began, after they are intercepted at sea and returned as a result of EU policy.

The human rights organisation’s 56-page report was based on dozens of interviews carried out between May and September.

As well as detailing "shocking" human rights violations – including rape, forced labour, medical neglect, and murder – it also says two men on the United Nations sanctions list continue to work with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord: Ahmed al-Dabbashi, also known as "al-Amu", who has been fighting with GNA forces, and Abdelrahman Milad, known as "Bidja", who is a Libyan coastguard commander.

"The European Union and its member states continue to implement policies that trap refugees and migrants in Libya," the report says. These include giving support to the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats of refugees and migrants who try to reach Europe


Nearly 8,500 men, women, and children were returned to Libya between January and mid-September this year. They were locked up, “disappeared”, or transferred to unofficial detention centres, Amnesty said.

This month refugees and migrants in Zintan’s Dhar el Jebel detention centre, in the Nafusa Mountains, marked two years’ imprisoned there without charge or trial. They have seen dozens of fellow detainees die of poor health or medical neglect.

A UN spokeswoman told The Irish Times it has not been able to access the centre since February.

Refugees and migrants are dying elsewhere too. In May 2020, at least 30 people were killed by traffickers in the town of Mazda, according to Amnesty's report, while another three were shot by Libyan officials in Khoms, two months later.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation, halting flights organised by UN and shutting down an already limited chance at legal evacuation to a safe country.


Fewer than 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been legally evacuated from Libya since 2017. More than 20,000 have drowned in the past six years trying to cross the Mediterranean sea to Europe.

On Wednesday the European Commission announced a new migration plan, described by president Ursula von der Leyen as a "fresh start".

European countries that refuse to take in refugees will instead be asked to take responsibility for deporting people whose asylum claims are denied.

“Migration has always been a fact for Europe, and it will always be. Throughout centuries it has defined our societies and shaped many of our lives,” Ms von der Leyen said. “Many legitimate interests have to be brought into balance. We want to live up to our values and at the same time face the challenges of a globalised world.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

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