Thousands of refugees held in detention centres in Libya’s capital are in serious danger after becoming trapped by fighting that has engulfed the city in recent days, rights groups have warned.
Since fighting erupted between rival groups last week, more than 8,000 people have fled Tripoli and the surrounding area. But refugees detained in makeshift prisons in the city are at the mercy of government militias holding them.
“There is a serious risk to thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in detention, with at least one detention centre located in the direct vicinity of the fighting,” said Sam Turner, Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) head of mission for Libya and search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
“Several other detention centres are dangerously close to the front lines. With the use of heavy weaponry and rapidly changing conflict dynamics, all people in these centres are at significant risk,” he told The Independent.
Nearly 7,000 migrants and refugees are being held in detention centres across Libya – around half of them in Tripoli. Detainees are arbitrarily detained in squalid conditions at the makeshift facilities, where torture and abuse is rife.
When fighting hit the city last year, hundreds of migrants were abandoned in one centre without food or water after guards fled in panic.
Heads of government detention centres in and around Tripoli told The Independent that hundreds of migrants have already been moved from areas on the frontline to central Tripoli, but there were concerns what would happen if the fighting entered the city centre.
Abdel-Rahim Rajahi, who used to run a migrant detention centre in Garabulli, east of the capital, said that hundreds of people had been transferred out of Ain Zara, a southern district of the capital which has been engulfed in fighting.
Mr Rajahi said his security colleagues in Tajoura, an eastern suburb of the capital, had received some of the migrants detained. Others were being sent to Triq al-Sikka, in the heart of the city.
“It is almost certain that the [fighting] will reach the detention centres,” he added. “Migrants will have to be transferred again by the forces of the anti-immigration agency.”
Haj Nasser, First Lieutenant at Triq al-Sikka, said that over 700 migrants had been temporarily transferred there. He added that Libya’s anti-illegal migration authority known as DCIM had set up a crisis centre fearing a repeat of 2018.
“We need the international community to help us with supplies,” he added.
The United Nations' refugee agency said on Thursday that it had evacuated 152 women and children from one centre near the fighting in the south of the city, and that more could follow.
“We are receiving calls of refugees who tell us they are scared for their safety,” said Paula Barrachina, a spokesperson for UNHCR. “Some of them can hear the clashes, they are worried about security.”
Ms Barrachina added that the UN said other relocations would “depend on the security situation on the ground”.
Libya has been in an almost constant state of chaos since the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 by a popular revolution backed by Nato airstrikes.
The country split into numerous armed factions in aftermath of the uprising. One of those factions, led by Khalifa Haftar, the self-declared field marshal of the eastern-based Libyan National Army, now vies for power with a UN-backed government supported by a collection of militias in the country’s west.
Last week, Mr Haftar launched an offensive to capture Tripoli with some 15,000 troops. More than 50 people have already been killed in the fighting.
The latest clashes in Libya have created a perfect storm for refugees who ended up in the country trying to reach a better life in Europe. Libya is thought to host some 700,000 migrants and refugees, who fled to the country from across Africa and the Middle East.
In recent years, the European Union has worked with the internationally recognised Libyan government to crack down on migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, through funding and training the Libyan coastguard. As a result, thousands are now languishing in detention centres that the UN has described as “inhuman and shocking”.
While the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean has steadily declined in recent years, more than 11,000 have made it across since January, according to the UN.
Almost 2,300 people died in 2018 trying to make the journey, compared to 3,000 in 2017. So far this year, an estimated 283 have perished during the crossing.
Last month, the European Union downgraded its own maritime rescue mission in the Mediterranean in a further effort to deter migration. Operation Sophia has been credited with saving nearly 50,000 lives since it was launched in 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis.
The downgrading of the EU mission appears to have come as a result of pressure from Italy, where anti-refugee sentiment is high and a populist government has cracked down on charity rescue missions operating off its coast.
On Wednesday, a boat carrying 20 migrants was taken back to Libya by the country’s coastguard more than 10 hours after issuing a distress call to EU authorities.
“In the vacuum of any dedicated search and rescue response, people’s lives are significantly at risk at sea just as they are in Tripoli’s conflict areas,” said Mr Turner.
“The European Union and its member states are complicit in violating international law by virtue of the fact that they are enabling the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and forcibly return people to a country that is in no way a place of safety for refugees and migrants. The law clearly stipulates that survivors must be taken to a place where their safety is guaranteed,” he added.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said they were “closely monitoring the situation in and around Tripoli, especially in the detention centres located in conflict areas”.
“Our assistance will continue to address the needs of specific vulnerable groups such as children and women among others,” said Natasha Bertaud, the commission’s migration spokesperson.
She added: “For the EU, it is also essential to put an end to the cruel business model run by traffickers and smugglers with scant regard for human life. That is the objective of training the Libyan coast guard to carry out search and rescue it its own Search and Rescue zone, whilst at the same time working to evacuate people from Libya, open up legal resettlement paths and put an end to despicable detention conditions.”
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