“You’re going to die here”: Abuse in Libyan detention centers

A new MSF report documents abuses, degradation, and inhumane conditions in Libyan detention centers holding refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.

A group of migrants and refugees gathered together in a shared dwelling in Libya in August 2021.

Migrants gathered in a shared dwelling. | Libya 2021 © Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

Inside the detention centers of Tripoli, Libya, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants have been assaulted, sexually abused, beaten, and killed. They have also been systematically deprived of the most basic humane living conditions, including sufficient access to food, water, sanitation, and medical care.

Before Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ended its medical activities in Tripoli in August, our teams witnessed and documented living conditions and abuses inside Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centers, where thousands of people, including women and children, continue to be arbitrarily detained. Their findings were published today in a new report, You’re going to die here” — Abuse in Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centers.  

“We continue to be horrified by what we saw in Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centers,” said Federica Franco, MSF head of mission in Libya. “People are utterly dehumanized, exposed every day to cruel and degrading conditions and treatment.”  

Violence and punishment inside Abu Salim and Ain Zara

According to MSF teams who provided medical care in both centers, guards frequently used mass and indiscriminate violence as punishment for disobeying orders, requesting medical care, asking for extra food, or in retaliation for protests or attempted escapes. 

At Abu Salim detention center, where only women and children are held, women spoke of how they were subjected to strip searches, intimate body searches, beatings, sexual assault, and rape. These abuses were perpetrated by guards but also by men, often armed, who were brought in from outside the detention center.  

“That night, [the guard] took us to another room in the prison, where there were men without uniforms. When it was my turn, the woman told me that if I had sex with him, I could get out. I started screaming. She pulled me out and hit me with a pipe and I was taken back to the big room with the other women. There she told me: ‘You’re going to die here.’”

A woman detained at Abu Salim

At Ain Zara detention center, detained men told MSF staff about forced labor, extortion, and other human rights abuses, including the deaths of at least five people due to violence or lack of access to lifesaving medical care. MSF teams documented 71 violent incidents that took place between January and July 2023, with medics treating injuries including bone fractures, wounds on arms and legs, black eyes, and impaired vision.

Degradation and inhumane conditions

In addition to being subjected to violence, detained people also reported various forms of intimidation and degrading treatment, such as throwing dirty water and sewage at women and children, withholding meals as a form of punishment, and being forced to spend days without light. 

“Hundreds of people are crammed into cells so overcrowded that they are forced to sleep in a sitting position, with sewage from overflowing septic tanks and clogged toilets spilling inside,” said Franco. “There is not enough food and water to drink or wash with. Combined with the awful conditions, this has contributed to the spread of infectious diseases such as acute watery diarrhea, scabies, and chicken pox.”  

Essential relief items such as clothing, mattresses, hygiene kits, blankets, diapers, and baby formula were distributed only irregularly and reportedly often confiscated by guards. At Abu Salim detention center, MSF teams saw the impact on babies’ skin from makeshift diapers made of towels and plastic bags, and their prolonged use. Women said they were forced to use pieces of blankets or torn-up T-shirts for tampons and sanitary pads. 

A man sitting and looking down in a dark room in Libya.

"You're going to die in here"

Abuse in Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centers 

Read the report

Denying access to medical care

On top of the dire living conditions and inhumane treatment, people held at Abu Salim and Ain Zara were regularly denied access to lifesaving medical care and humanitarian assistance. MSF teams were denied access to both detention centers, and to individual cells within the centers, dozens of times. While MSF teams were at Abu Salim, they documented more than 62 incidents of interference in MSF's medical assistance, including breaches of medical confidentiality and the confiscation of essential relief items. 

MSF lost access to Ain Zara detention center completely in early July, and to Abu Salim in August. This denial of access and frequent obstructions to the provision of principled humanitarian assistance were contributing factors in MSF’s decision to end activities in Tripoli in August. 

“After seven years of providing medical and humanitarian assistance in Tripoli, the appalling situation we have witnessed in Libya’s detention centers is a direct reverberation of Europe’s harmful migration policies aimed at preventing people from leaving Libya at all costs, and forcefully returning them to a country that is not safe for them,” said Franco. 

MSF calls for an end to arbitrary detention in Libya, and for all refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to be released from detention centers and provided with meaningful protection, safe shelter, and safe and legal pathways out of Libya.

About MSF in Libya

From 2016 until August 2023, MSF provided medical and humanitarian assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants held in detention centers and to people living in precarious conditions in urban settings in Tripoli. Services included general health care, mental health support, referrals for patients with life-threatening conditions to specialized medical facilities, and facilitating access to protection services.  

MSF continues to work in the Misrata, Zuwara, and Derna regions, and continues search and rescue activities to assist refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea.