Airstrikes, forced labour, and no food: Libya’s migrant detention centres come under scrutiny

In wake of deadly attack, Tripoli considers freeing migrants held in horrific makeshift prisons

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Thursday 04 July 2019 20:28
Migrants gather in aftermath of airstrike in Tripoli, Libya

The plight of thousands of migrants and refugees stuck in the war-torn north African nation of Libya came under renewed attention on Thursday, a day after scores stuck in one of a number of detention centres were killed and injured in an airstrike east of Tripoli.

The death toll in the early Wednesday morning attack on the migrant detention facility in the city of Tajoura rose to at least 53 people, according to the United Nations. The Tripoli government says 60 people were killed.

Among the dead were at least six children, and bodies were reportedly still being recovered from the site. The monitoring group Airways called it “the single worst civilian harm event in recent Libyan history”.

In the wake of the bloodbath, the Tripoli-based government said it would consider acceding to UN recommendations to shutting down the detention facilities, and allowing the estimated 3,800 migrants held inside to leave.

“We are currently discussing the option of closing the reception centres and freeing the illegal migrants out of concern for their safety,” interior minister Fathi Bashagha reportedly said in a meeting with UN humanitarian coordinator Maria Ribeiro.

The UN has described “severe overcrowding, insufficient access to healthcare, food, clean water and sanitation” at the camps, and cited the Tajoura facility as “amongst several detention centres where provision of food is severely lacking, with refugees and migrants receiving one meal a day”.

Migrants have used Libya for decades to transit from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to Europe, boarding rickety boats to make the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean. Italy and other countries have cajoled and paid Libyan authorities to keep the migrants from reaching European waters.

But much of western Libya is now in the throes of a civil war. Forces of Khalifa Haftar, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are attempting to seize control of the capital from forces loyal to the UN-brokered Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

The UN has warned for months that refugees and migrants should be evacuated from the conflict zone.

A brief it issued after Wednesday’s attack cited reports that guards protected the facility opened fire on some of the migrants while they were attempting to flee the site. The Associated Press cited two of the migrants who survived the attack saying they had been forced by the armed group controlling the site to prepare weapons for the militia.

“As this horrific incident demonstrates, all individuals inside these centres are at imminent risk, as they are held against their will and have no means of seeking safety on their own,” the UN briefing said.

Despite worldwide outrage over the attack and strong suspicions that forces loyal to Mr Haftar launched the airstrikes, the UN Security Council’s attempt to condemn the bombing on Wednesday was thwarted by the United States. The White House, with commercial and political ties to the Arab autocracies backing Mr Haftar, appears to be bucking the longstanding US policy of siding with the Tripoli authorities.

Forces loyal to Mr Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which maintains superior air power, have denied they were behind the Tajoura attack, even though a spokesman publicly boasted of targeting the area hours before the airstrike.

But even before the attack the facility in Tajoura, holding 600 people, was generating controversy.

Close to a military encampment, it had been struck at least once before, allegedly by the LNA.

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