Caring for thousands of migrants and refugees detained in dire conditions

Women and children detained at female-only Sorman detention centre, around 60km west of Tripoli, Libya.
LIBYA 2017 © Guillaume Binet/Myop
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Despite instability and ongoing conflict, Libya remains a destination for migrant workers from across the African continent and a transit country for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe.

Thousands of men, women, and children who fail to make that crossing end up in arbitrary detention, stranded in horrific conditions and denied adequate access to medical care.

For more than two years Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has provided medical assistance to migrants and refugees arbitrarily held in detention centers that are nominally under the control of Libya’s Ministry of the Interior. Most medical complaints are related to the conditions in the facilities where they are detained, with overcrowding, inadequate food and drinking water, and insufficient latrines resulting in respiratory tract infections, musculoskeletal pain, and skin and diarrheal diseases.

In 2017 MSF publicly called for an end to the arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees in Libya and denounced European governments’ migration policies to seal off the coast of Libya to “contain” migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in a country where they are exposed to extreme, widespread violence and exploitation. Though European, African, and Libyan officials have made a number of declarations about ending the horrific treatment of refugees and migrants in Libya, very little has been done to address the situation of people held captive outside of official detention centers. The kidnapping and torture of migrants and refugees in order to obtain ransom is widespread—and could be increasing. MSF cannot access the clandestine prisons where these people are held, but does care for those who manage to escape.

Widespread violence and insecurity mean we are one of very few international organizations working in the country. In Tripoli, MSF conducted 17,219 medical consultations and referred 470 patients to secondary health care facilities. In Misrata, MSF supported the main hospital to improve infection control and scaled up its response to the needs of migrants and refugees in the area. Medical teams started working in five detention centers in Misrata, Khoms, and Zliten, carrying out a total of 1,351 consultations and referring 49 patients for further treatment. In mid-2017, MSF also started to work in Bani Walid, reportedly a major transit hub for smugglers and traffickers.

In the east of the country, MSF ran a clinic in Benghazi in collaboration with a Libyan NGO, offering pediatric and gynecology consultations to displaced and vulnerable people, as well as mental health support to children and families affected by trauma and violence.