Libya: Refugees and migrants must be evacuated

A guard is closing the door of a cell in Abu Salim detention center, in Tripoli, Libya.

LIBYA 2017 © Guillaume Binet/Myop

TUNIS/NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 7, 2018—Thousands of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers arbitrarily held in Libyan detention centers must immediately be released and evacuated to safety out of the country, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today, urging UN agencies to act during a fragile ceasefire from heavy fighting in Tripoli, Libya.

Tripoli has seen the worst fighting in years with heavy shelling in residential areas resulting in over 60 people killed and hundreds wounded, most of whom are civilians, according to Ministry of Health estimates. Rockets have landed next to detention centers, and the surrounding areas have come under fire. The homes of Libyan health workers employed by MSF have been hit in the shelling.

"Several detention centers in Tripoli are on front lines and thousands of desperate people are still trapped inside," said Ibrahim Younis, MSF's head of mission for Libya. "There is a real risk of mass casualties as a result of indiscriminate shelling and artillery fire. The supply of food and water has broken down and is now only being provided on an ad-hoc basis. Medical care is wholly insufficient as this is mostly provided by international organizations now forced to suspend activities due to the current insecurity."


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MSF teams could not access refugees and migrants in detention centers since the fighting began in late August, coming dangerously close to one of the biggest detention centers, holding about 700 people. MSF teams were also unable to access another four detention centers where they had been regularly providing health care via mobile clinics.

Because of the violence, MSF has been forced to suspend regular medical activities and reduce the size of its team. Currently, MSF is only able to provide limited assistance in Tripoli's detention centers—emergency medical referrals and ad-hoc distributions of food, water, and hygiene kits. However, MSF has maintained its medical activities outside of Tripoli in the areas of Khoms, Misrata, and Zliten.

Although about 300 refugees and migrants held in Ain Zara detention center who were in clear danger of getting caught in hostilities were "evacuated" by international agencies last week, they were not taken out of Libya but relocated several miles away to the Abu Salim detention center in Tripoli, which also fell into the line of fire.

"Transferring detainees from one detention center to another within the same conflict zone cannot be described as an evacuation and it is certainly not a solution," said Ibrahim Younis. "The resources and mechanisms exist to bring these people to third countries where their claims for asylum or repatriation can be duly processed. That's what needs to happen right now, without delay. This is about saving lives."

This year, European Union-supported Libyan coast guard vessels have intercepted unprecedented numbers of people on the Mediterranean Sea and returned them to Libya. Throughout Libya, refugees and migrants face alarming levels of violence, extortion, and exploitation, and many report the widespread criminal practice of kidnap for ransom. There are many survivors of sexual violence, trafficking, torture, and ill-treatment.

Specifically, MSF urges:

  • The UN refugee agency UNHCR and safe countries to rapidly organize the evacuation of refugees and asylum seekers from Libya and expedite their resettlement.
  • The UN migration agency IOM and countries of origin to expedite the evacuation and repatriation of migrants in Libya who wish to return to their home countries.
  • European states and Libyan authorities to stop intercepting people fleeing by sea and returning them to Libya as a means to prevent arrivals to Europe.