Why Libya cannot be Europe’s solution to “stemming the flow of migration”
European countries, including the UK, have allocated more than €200 million of resources to Libya in order to try and “stem the flow” of migration.
However, the reality is that UK and European policy is helping to trap thousands of people in Libya in appalling conditions. Worse still, it is pushing refugees and migrants into the hands of criminals and people traffickers, contributing to the very problem our government claims to want to solve.
1. People who are intercepted as they try to cross the Mediterranean and returned to Libya often end up in detention centres that are supported by Europe and run by militias who profit from human trafficking.
At Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), our medics see people in detention who tell us they were brought there by the Libyan coastguard.
In a fragmented Tripoli, some detention centres are more firmly under the control of the Ministry of Interior than others.
In reality, armed groups and militias that control territory in the capital are in charge of the detention centres located in those areas. As power dynamics shift, so does management of detention centres, which can change rapidly and unexpectedly from one day to the next.
Treated as commodities, people are targeted and traded by kidnappers, gangs, people smugglers, human traffickers, militias and security forces.
Regardless of who is in charge of a centre, the system is abusive and exploitative. Detainees are systematically extorted or are forced to work in order to buy their way out of detention.
Lamin (name changed), 22 years, from Gambia
"I tried to flee from Libya in a boat during Ramadan in June this year. We were on the water for just 30 minutes when we were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, a black ship with the Libyan flag. They took us back to Zawiyah, arrested us and brought us to a prison, where they demanded 1.000 dinar [about €600] for our release. I had to call my family to get the money somehow."
George (name changed), from Nigeria
"Then they brought me into a detention center and locked us in a cell. Everyone had to call their families and make them pay for the release. They wanted 250.000 naira [almost €700], but my family didn’t have that money. That’s why I was there for seven months."
Oumar (name changed), from Senegal
"The guards asked for the telephone number of my family in Senegal and demanded an amount of several hundred euros from my father. He had to sell three of his five cows for my release."
Pape (name changed), 18, from Senegal
"When we arrived in Sabha in Southern Libya, the driver took us into a prison. It was a big hall, overcrowded, with hundreds of people. The guards were Arab men with guns, but also West Africans who helped them. They made everyone call their families and demanded a huge amount of several hundred euros for our release."
2. Choosing to push vulnerable people back to Libya means choosing to be complicit in a system of life threatening abuse, torture and rape.
With no rule of law in Libya, the detention system is completely unregulated. Basic standards and safeguards to prevent torture, sexual violence and ill-treatment are not respected. Those detained are at the mercy of heavily armed guards who lack adequate training, have no one to hold them to account, and reportedly often do not receive a regular salary.
New detention centres emerge overnight with detainees exploited as forced labour in their construction. Detention centres shut down just as suddenly, with the fate of people detained there unknown.
The men, women and children that MSF have access to inside these centres are regularly treated for violence-related injuries. Our teams also come across many women in the early stages of pregnancy despite having been detained for several months.
Not only are people subjected to violence by guards, they are also at risk of violence from other detainees, including those selected by guards to maintain order inside the cells.
"There were many infections and no medical care. I saw a man die who slept in front of me. He was tied at his legs and his arms, and we found him dead one morning."
"The prison where I was arrested in Sabha after my arrival in Southern Libya was even worse. The driver who brought us through the desert sold us to criminals there, who then kept us in a prison and sold us for a higher price. The women were even sold at a much higher price than the men – they then had either to pay back the money or to work in prostitution. They were beating us every day, on the soles of our feet and on our backs. They even used electric shocks – they would put wires on our cheeks or our temples. Everyone had to call his family and demand money. From my family they demanded 35,000 Gambian dallasis (around €350), but my family didn’t have that money. Fortunately, I managed to escape with three others at night after 15 days in that prison."
Sasha (name changed), 30, from Cameroon
"For four weeks my friend and I were raped and beaten. She was too weak and could not handle the violence and abuse. She passed away. I feel I have become an animal. I am no longer a woman. I lost taste in life."
4. Vulnerable people trapped in Libya with no way out are at risk of being kidnapped on the street.
There are many ways to end up in detention in Libya. Sometimes people are spotted on boats in the Mediterranean and brought back by the Libyan coastguard. Some are detained on suspicion of having HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C. Others are rounded up in night raids, arrested at checkpoints or picked up off the streets, including many people who have lived in Libya for years and had no intention of travelling to Europe. People are dragged out of cars or taxis waiting at red lights and detained.
On one occasion, a team from MSF came across a group of well-dressed men, women and young children in a detention centre who had been detained while attending a wedding celebration in Tripoli.
"Last year, when I was in Tripoli, uniformed men arrested me without any reason. They detained me in a prison in the town of Garabulli... We all had skin diseases, we scratched ourselves all the time. There was no medical care. Two Chadians, who were very sick, died in the detention center while I was there...
The guards beat us all the time. Our feet were tied, and they used to come and beat us with metal pipes on the soles of our feet. They also used electric shocks. The guards asked for the telephone number of my family in Senegal and demanded several hundred euros from my father."
Hamdi, from Yemen
"In Libya, our convoy was attacked by an armed group. There was a fight and they kidnapped us. We were detained and had to call our families to ask them to pay a ransom. We were beaten every day. Our families had to pay at least $1,200 for our release. My mother borrowed the money and sent it. Those smugglers were barbarians.
After that, we were taken to a warehouse with a metal roof where we were detained for two months. Five people died there. We had worms, lice and skin disease. Everybody scratched themselves until they bled and some people’s skin turned black."
5. Conditions inside the detention centres are appalling.
MSF medics are treating more than a thousand detainees a month for diseases that are the direct result of conditions inside the detention centres, including respiratory infections, stomach problems, such as diarrhoea and vomiting, skin diseases and urinary tract infections. The detention centres do not meet any sort of national, regional or international standards, and lack consistent or adequate medical care.
There is also often a severe lack of food. In the past year, MSF has treated at least 50 adults suffering from acute malnutrition with some patients needing urgent hospitalisation. This represents an average of one person every week. In addition, significant numbers of detainees have suffered dramatic weight loss and have nutritional deficiencies which make them more susceptible to disease and acute illness. Food rations are mostly not sufficient in quantity or quality.
"We were taken to a warehouse with a metal roof, where we were detained for two months. Five people died there. We had worms, lice and skin disease. Everybody scratched themselves until they bled and some people’s skin turned black."
"It was completely overcrowded, we had barely space to sleep. They gave us only salty water to drink and once per day plain macaroni. We all had skin diseases, we scratched ourselves all the time. There was no medical care. Two Chadians, who were very sick, died in this detention centre while I was there."
"The conditions there were terrible. We were 70 people in a room of the size of a normal bedroom. There was no space even to sleep. There was only one toilet for all 70 of us. We had to drink water from the toilet bowl. It was salty. They gave us food only once a day – macaroni. Some of those who couldn’t pay were forced to work during the day. Many people got sick, but there was no medical care. I suffered a lot there."
6. Vulnerable refugees and migrants trapped in Libya do not have access to medical care.
People in detention are not guaranteed access to medical care by the authorities detaining them. Medical care is provided by a handful of humanitarian organisations, such as MSF or UN agencies, who are used to working in highly volatile and insecure environments.
However, there are severe limitations to the medical care MSF is able to provide. In these highly controlled and restrictive circumstances, our medics do not have unhindered access to men, women and children inside detention centres and are not always given the full freedom to triage patients or decide independently which patients we should see and treat. There are detention centres where people are concealed from MSF and other centres that no organisation is allowed to enter – no one knows what is happening inside them.
It is extremely difficult for MSF doctors to closely monitor patients in detention, as access to centres can be suddenly restricted, or patients simply disappear with no explanation as to where they’ve gone.
"There were many infections and no medical care. I saw a man die who slept in front of me. He was tied at his legs and his arms, and we found him dead one morning. They just let me go because I was very sick at some point. I was lucky that a friend helped me when I was released."
"There was also a pregnant woman in the prison. She had to give birth on her own. Many people got sick. When someone of us was too weak and going to die, they would come and take him out. They didn’t bring them to a hospital. We’re sure they just left them in the desert. That happened also to a friend of mine from Gambia, whom I’d met in Agadez. He was 19 years old. He had a terrible skin disease and got weaker and weaker. Me and other friends had to feed him and to help him. One day, they took him out of the room and he disappeared."
7. Trapping people in Libya means leaving them indefinitely in detention centres, often with no way out and no way to contact loved ones.
With no formal registration or proper record-keeping in place, once people are inside a detention centre there is no way to track what happens to them. Some detainees are held for prolonged periods of time; others are transferred between different detention centres, moved to undisclosed locations or disappear overnight. People are detained without knowing if and when the detention will end or any way to access legal or consular support. People are anxious and fearful about what will happen to them and with virtually no access to the outside world, they are often desperate to let their loved ones know they are still alive.
When Vickie Hawkins, MSF UK general director went to Tripoli, she met a woman in her late-twenties from Nigeria who had been held in the detention centre for 10 months...
She had been in Libya for four years with her husband, who had been living and working in the country for eight years. She has two children; they are with her husband. She was picked up off the street one day and has been in the detention centre ever since. She’s had one call with her husband in the meantime when they were allowed to use a phone at Christmas. She was desperate to be reunited with her family and had no idea why she was there and when she might be released.
"They charged €1,000 per person for our release. This is their business with black Africans. As soon as we paid, they put us on a boat in the Mediterranean. This was the only way out of prison."