Refugees and migrants in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, are appealing for help after at least 5,000 – including torture survivors, pregnant women and children – were rounded up in raids over the past six days and detained indefinitely.
Libyan authorities say they are taking action against illegal migration and drug trafficking. Photographs and videos taken during the raids showed those detained being beaten or sitting on the ground, with heads bowed and hands tied behind their backs.
The raids have confirmed the fears of refugees in Tripoli, many of whom were trapped in a cycle of trafficking and smuggling, detention and exploitation for years before they were freed.
"I don't know why the UN is silent. Why is the UN not doing anything? Again we will be returned back to those hell prisons," said one man, who had already spent two years in detention after trying to reach Europe. The man was among a group of 141 people moved to Tripoli in October 2020 from a detention centre in the port city of Khoms.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said at the time that it had secured their release.
“Life is paining us,” the man said. “There is no mercy in this world. It’s become survival of the fittest. We don’t have anywhere to go. We don’t know what to do and where to run.”
The detainees include Eritreans, Somalis and Sudanese people who have fled war or dictatorships and are hoping for legal evacuation to a safe country.
One messaged me through social media saying he was in a locked room in Al Mabani detention centre in Tripoli, and that he and others were being denied access to the UN. He sent a list of names and UN registration numbers of those with him, which he asked me to pass on.
Al Mabani is holding more than 4,000 people – four times its official capacity, according to the International Rescue Committee aid agency. Shara Zawaya detention centre, designated for women and children, has more than 520 detainees, including 175 children, 47 of whom are babies.
Some of those arrested sent messages to friends saying they were being asked for bribes of 4,000 dinars (about €750) to be released again.
“Even if you pay, no one has a place to go. The government has ordered [landlords] not to rent houses to migrants. That means you will be caught again and will be back to prison,” one Eritrean said.
Killed and injured
On Saturday, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Libya, Georgette Gagnon, said at least one person had been killed and 15 injured, six seriously, during the raids. Two shooting victims were in intensive care.
"While the UN fully respects the state's sovereignty and supports its duty to maintain law and order, and protect the security of their population, it calls on state authorities to respect at all times the human rights and dignity of all people," Ms Gagnon said.
An attempt to provide a UN-backed, EU-funded "alternative to detention" in Tripoli failed in early 2020, and refugees forced out of that UNHCR-managed facility are among those who have been rounded up.
Hundreds of refugees and migrants who had so far evaded arrest gathered outside a UNHCR day centre in Tripoli this week, asking for protection. An Eritrean man said he was given 150 dinars (€28), food and toiletries. “We asked them where should we take it, we don’t have homes,” he said. “They said, ‘Just take it and stay outside.’”
Refugees say that the following day they were forced to leave the building by security forces. “The army have started beating people and telling them to go away,” said one man.
A UNHCR spokeswoman said work at the day centre was suspended due to “security reasons”.
The agency said some recently detained people were due to be evacuated from Libya. “UNHCR reiterates that Libya is not a country of asylum, nor a place of safety or a safe port for disembarkation, and persons rescued at sea should not be returned to the country,” the spokeswoman said. “Any support to the Libyan coastguard or other Libyan state authorities should be made conditional on the human rights of refugees and migrants in Libya being upheld and respected.”
This year, only 345 people have been evacuated by the UN.
Libya has long been a transit point for migrants and refugees fleeing poverty, war and dictatorships across Africa who try to cross the central Mediterranean to Europe on what is known as the deadliest migration route in the world.
More than 25,200 men, women and children have been intercepted trying to reach Europe this year and sent back to Libya. Roughly 80,000 people have been caught this way since 2017, when the EU pledged tens of millions of euro towards equipping and training the Libyan coastguard.
Human rights activists say this was deliberate circumnavigation of international law, which prohibits European boats from returning people to a place where their lives are at risk.
On Monday the first findings from an independent "fact-finding mission" commissioned by the UN's Human Rights Council found that "acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed against migrants [in Libya] form part of a systematic and widespread attack directed at this population, in furtherance of a state policy" which, it said, may amount to crimes against humanity.
In detention, “all migrants – men and women, boys and girls – are kept in harsh conditions, some of whom die. Some children are held with adults, placing them at high risk of abuse. Torture (such as electric shocks) and sexual violence (including rape and forced prostitution) are prevalent,” the report said.
When asked whether it would reconsider its support for the Libyan coastguard in the wake of both the raids and the UN council report, an EU spokesman said it was still assessing the situation, but “we strongly condemn any alleged use of violence. The respect for human rights and dignity of all people needs to be ensured at all times and under all circumstances”.
He said the EU was still calling on Libyan authorities to end arbitrary detention. “While fully supportive of Libyan sovereignty, the EU also strongly encourages Libyan authorities to refrain from the use of lethal force in these operations.”