Avoiding the next tragedy in Libya

Airstrike Detention Center - Tajoura

Libya 2019 © Hazem Ahmed/AP

Late on the night of July 2, the Tajoura detention center in Libya was hit by an airstrike, killing at least 60 refugees and migrants held there and injuring many others. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had warned about the dangers for months, calling for the urgent evacuation of vulnerable people trapped in a war zone. Sam Turner, MSF head of mission in Libya, writes about a horrific tragedy that should have been avoided, and who is to blame. A version of this article originally appeared in the British newspaper The Independent

“When I arrived to Tajoura detention center at 12:45 a.m. [on July 3], it was crammed with ambulances outside. The building that was hit was all but destroyed—the walls crumbled, debris everywhere. In place of the cell, there was just a huge hole. There was no one still alive in that room. I saw bodies everywhere, and body parts sticking out from under the rubble. Blood all around. At some point, I had to stop, I couldn’t go further inside the ruins as there were too many dead. I would have to walk over the bodies to proceed…. I knew many of the dead by name, I knew their stories.”  

These are the words of a Libyan MSF doctor following the fatal airstrike on Tajoura detention center late at night on July 2, that killed an estimated 60 people and injured 70 others. It is a night that will forever remain etched in this doctor’s memory—and the memories of all MSF staff in Libya—as a horrific nightmare. A night in which our worst fears would come to pass, fears which we have voiced for months in the futile hope that unnecessary suffering and death would be avoided.

Minutes after the airstrikes, our staff, who had returned from a visit to that same detention center merely hours before, started to receive frantic calls. They rushed to the scene but there was little they could do. The over 130 innocent men and boys whose eyes they’d looked into earlier that day stood no chance, locked in the cell when the explosion tore through them. 

I had been in Tajoura just two months earlier on May 8, the day after [an earlier incident when an] airstrike hit the detention center. On that occasion, shrapnel from the blast tore through the roof of the women’s cell and nearly hit a baby sleeping on a thin mattress on the hard floor. 

I can’t help but think of the people I might have met during my visits to Tajoura who were to be entombed in their cell. I remember the scared faces I saw in May, with any hope for their safety long forgotten. They protested their unending detention to us. We in turn raised the alarm, calling for the United Kingdom [and European Union governments] to reverse and oppose  policies which trap people in these centers, and to support the immediate and urgent evacuation out of Libya of refugees and migrants held in arbitrary detention. We were adamant that there was no way this could continue. 

But it did continue. This latest airstrike was the deadliest incident for civilians since the beginning of the fighting in Tripoli—accounting for over half of the civilian deaths, according to figures from the World Health Organization. Beyond the fighting, instability in Libya exposes refugees and migrants to extremely high risks; they are preyed upon by the [criminal] underworld, traffickers, smugglers, and all those willing to exploit them for personal gain. These detention centers are places of indefinite incarceration with unspeakable conditions and no way out. Places where people are forgotten.

Less than one percent of the estimated population of refugees and migrants in Libya are in detention centers—approximately 5,600 people in total. In recent days we have seen strengthened calls from United Nations agencies and even the European Union, joining MSF in calling resolutely for an end to arbitrary detention in Libya. However, it is not simply about unlocking the doors, providing an illusion of freedom, and allowing politicians to wash their hands and conscience of the problem. Those who walk out of detention with empty pockets and nothing on their backs are still caught in the crossfire of a war that isn’t theirs, within the grasp of criminal networks and looking towards a precarious and uncertain future.

In the absence of timely solutions that offer any real hope, the only escape is the sea, and here is where the greatest hypocrisy lies. Since fighting began in Tripoli in April, the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard has returned four times as many people to Libya than have been evacuated or resettled to safe countries, according to UN figures. [On July 9], 90 people intercepted at sea were forcibly returned to Tajoura. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt denounced the airstrike on Twitter, but his words mean little while the EU governments continue to prop up the Libyan Coastguard. 

The carnage in Tajoura was foreseen and should have been avoided. The international community waited until it happened and then condemned it, promising investigations. Who has named the dead? Informed their families or laid them to rest? 

To add insult to fatal injury, despite the outrage following the attack, there are still 193 people detained in the graveyard of Tajoura, with the number growing every day. 

Out of respect for all those who lost their lives, we must do everything in our power to stop this recurring nightmare. MSF calls, once again, for the immediate closure of Tajoura detention center and the evacuation of all detained refugees and migrants out of Libya. The forced return of people fleeing Libya must stop, the cycle must be broken.