Libya: Detained refugees and asylum-seekers die from suspected tuberculosis and other diseases

A young couple detained in Libya

Libya 2018 © Sara Creta/MSF

PARIS/NEW YORK, June 21, 2019—Conditions in two detention centers in Libya are medically catastrophic and consistent with reports that at least 22 people have died since September from suspected tuberculosis and other diseases, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today, after gaining access to the centers in recent weeks.

The Zintan and Gharyan detention centers, located south of Tripoli in the Nafusa Mountains, hold hundreds of people who are registered as asylum seekers or refugees with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. Nonetheless, they are stranded in these centers for months or years with virtually no assistance. The reports of death have also been confirmed by United Nations agencies.

MSF staff made their first visit to Zintan detention center in May, finding about 900 detainees, of whom 700 were held in an overcrowded hangar with four barely functioning toilets, no shower and only sporadic access to water, which was not suitable for drinking.  

"Healthwise, it was a disaster," said Julien Raickman, MSF head of mission in Libya. "A tuberculosis outbreak has likely been raging for months in the detention center. The situation was so critical that we immediately arranged lifesaving referrals to hospital during our initial visits."

In total, MSF staff arranged 16 referrals to hospital between May 25 and June 19. MSF also distributed supplies of food, powdered milk, blankets, and hygiene items. Having been granted access to Zintan detention center by Libya's Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), MSF is now scaling up its medical and humanitarian response. Medical consultations and referrals are still ongoing and MSF is working on repairing the water supply system.

Earlier this year, about 50 of the detainees in the poorest health were transferred from Zintan to Gharyan detention center, located about 60 miles to the northeast and on the front line of the current conflict between the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA). With heavy fighting nearby, the situation for the 29 detainees who remain in Gharyan is particularly hazardous. The area can be inaccessible to ambulances because of the fighting, making it difficult to organize lifesaving referrals to a hospital when needed.  

People detained in Zintan and Gharyan detention centers are mostly from Eritrea and Somalia and have survived harrowing experiences during their perilous journey. Some were kidnapped in Libya by traffickers who tortured them to extort money from them and their relatives. Some attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety but were brought back by the Libyan Coast Guard, with support from the European Union, and taken to detention centers near the coast. Others who were held by smugglers in Sabratha became caught in the middle of fighting between rival militias in October 2017 and were subsequently taken to detention centers in Tripoli.

Since November 2017, just 3,743 people have been evacuated from Libya by UNHCR, mostly to Niger, where they must then wait for another country to offer them asylum. On June 3, UNHCR relocated 96 people from Zintan detention center to a UNHCR-run facility in Tripoli where they await evacuation from Libya.

"What will happen to the other 625 refugees remaining in Zintan and Gharyan detention centers?" Raickman said. "And what will happen to the people referred from Zintan and Gharyan to hospital after they complete their medical treatment?"

Rather than being given the protection to which they are entitled, these refugees and asylum seekers are condemned to a cycle of violence and detention. This is an all-too-common situation for migrants and refugees across Libya, yet it has not prevented European states from pushing back to Libya those who attempt to flee, in the full knowledge of what lies in store for them and in violation of international law.

The number of people held in detention centers peaked in late 2017 at more than 20,000. After fighting broke out in Tripoli in August 2018, many people were moved from Tripoli to Zintan detention center, farther from the front line but out of sight, in desperate conditions and with little access to medical care.

"We have been abandoned here, I cannot go back and no one wants us anywhere," said an Eritrean refugee in his twenties being held in Zintan detention center. "I don't know where my place on earth is." 

Evacuations and resettlements of refugees and asylum seekers from Libya must urgently be scaled up.

"This can only work if safe countries live up to their responsibilities with regard to asylum, and if European states stop their outrageous policy of illegal pushbacks to Libya from the Mediterranean Sea," Raickman said. "Transferring people from one detention center to another does not protect them from the life-threatening dangers they face in Libya. What refugees urgently need is a way out of the country."