Refugees say Tripoli government using them as ‘human shields’

Migrants claim fighters are storing weapons at Libyan detention centres

Refugees and migrants locked up in Libya have accused fighters associated with the Tripoli-based government of deliberately detaining them close to weapons stores, to prevent them from being targeted by rebel forces.

Detainees in four Tripoli migrant detention centres have told The Irish Times weapons are being kept near to them – and in one case, inside a hall with them.

“Militias, they have different tricks to stop [Khalifa] Haftar’s air strikes,” said an Eritrean man who has been in contact with The Irish Times for months, and messages using a hidden phone. “All the weapons stores are inside the refugees’ rooms.”

“They always use us as a shield,” said a Sudanese man in another detention centre.


Conflict has been raging in Tripoli since eastern general Khalifa Haftar ordered his troops to advance on the Libyan capital in early April.

The latest allegations come just days after air strikes on Tajoura detention centre, eastern Tripoli, killed at least 53 men, women and children. Many had been incarcerated there indefinitely after they were caught by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard, while trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.

Survivors in Tajoura say the death toll is much higher than what the United Nations has confirmed. Five told The Irish Times they believed it was above 120, based on the number of people who were inside the centre that was directly hit. They also allege guards in Tajoura shot at detainees who tried to escape after the first air strike.

"Using civilians as human shields is a war crime," said Judith Sunderland, associate director for the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Storing weapons near detainees makes them a military target."

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord blamed Tuesday’s air strikes on Gen Haftar’s forces, while a spokesman for his self-styled Libyan National Army denied it. The UN and the EU have called for a full independent investigation.

Roughly 6,000 people are being held in detention centres run by the Libyan Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), which is under the Tripoli government.

More than 3,000 refugees and migrants are trapped in detention centres close to clashes in Tripoli, according to the UN, meaning the sound of guns and bombs has become commonplace.

Months of suffering

For refugees and migrants detained in Tajoura detention centre, Tuesday’s deadly air strike was just the latest in months of suffering.

Though diplomats and officials from other countries have often visited Tajoura, including – most recently – the Italian ambassador to Libya, Giuseppe Maria Buccino Grimaldi, on June 16th, people detained there say they have been afraid to speak out about problems for fear of being isolated and tortured by Libyan guards.

This includes not sharing their fears about the storage of weapons nearby, and how some of them are being forced to work helping militants inside the complex by loading ammunition, moving guns and cleaning tanks and military ambulances.

In March, detainees said two Sudanese men were isolated and badly beaten by guards after a visit by the then Dutch minister of migration, Mark Harbers. Last December, another detainee was hit after refusing to perform for a "migrants' day" event, according to witnesses.

Call for evacuation

The use of isolation and torture of detainees inside Tajoura has been confirmed by an aid worker with knowledge of the centre, who asked to remain anonymous. DCIM did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On Friday, hundreds of survivors of the Tajoura air strike were still on the grounds of the detention centre, calling for evacuation. They had been outside for three full days, refusing to re-enter cells because they were worried there could be another air strike. They say they aren’t receiving adequate food and water.

“All day we heard [the] sound of heavy weapons,” said a Sudanese detainee, explaining Libyan guards were trying to force them to go back inside halls close to where the air strike happened. “Now they want [to] force us to sleep near the weapon store. We refused, [then] they threatened to call the army.”

“We’ve stayed outside under the sun’s heat for the third day; we will remain until they evacuate us.”

Survivors also said they are still traumatised by what they saw on Tuesday. “We saw dead bodies on the ground, and the legs and heads of men,” said one man. “It was so confusing.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

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