Conflict in Tripoli puts lives in danger, demonstrating that Libya is not a safe place

Men are detained in Tripoli's Abu Salim detention center, pictured in 2017. Migrants and refugees spend months in appalling conditions in Libya's detention centers without knowing when they will be released.
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Tripoli, Libya/Amsterdam/New York, August 31, 2018—Over the past three days, clashes in Tripoli have gravely endangered the lives of local residents and an estimated 8,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who have been trapped and arbitrarily held in detention centers throughout the city, the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

European governments must acknowledge their responsibility to help the most vulnerable people trapped in Libya, recognizing that the country is not a place of safety, MSF said.

On August 26, conflict erupted between rival armed groups in Tripoli, with heavy shelling causing casualties in residential areas. After fighting began, some were trapped for more than 48 hours in one such area without access to food. Others who were released had no choice but to flee to nearby neighborhoods in the crossfire.

"The recent fighting demonstrates that Libya is not a safe place for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers," said Ibrahim Younis, MSF head of mission in Libya. "Many have fled from war-torn countries or have spent months in horrible conditions, while being held by human traffickers before they were put in these closed detention centers. These people are already extremely vulnerable, and now they find themselves trapped in yet another conflict without the ability to escape. They should not be held captive simply because they were looking for safety or a better life. They should be immediately released and evacuated to a country where they will be safe."

Since the fighting broke out, the humanitarian needs in and around the detention centers have grown from already alarming levels. MSF teams are conducting the first medical consultations since the fighting began and are providing food, water, and nutritional supplements to some of the people still in detention centers. However, MSF and other humanitarian organizations have limited access to other people in need of assistance. Libyan communities in and around Tripoli have also been affected by the fighting and have inadequate access to health care.

While refugees are entitled to protection under international law, the Libyan authorities, the governments of safe countries, and the United Nations have all failed to establish an effective mechanism for processing asylum claims. European countries have even established policies that prevent asylum seekers from leaving Libya.

These same policies prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean by having the European-sponsored Libyan coast guard return people rescued at sea to Libyan shores. The vast majority of detainees have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya, exacerbating the poor conditions in Tripoli's already overcrowded detention centers. The situation has deteriorated over the past few months as detainees suffer the physical and mental health consequences of their limited access to clean water, sanitation, and health care.

MSF has worked in Libya since 2011 and has been working in the Tripoli detention centers since 2016, providing primary health care, mental health support, and water and sanitation services. MSF is also the only organization providing emergency referrals to hospitals for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers inside the detention centers. MSF also works in detention centers in Khoms, Zliten, and Misrata and provides medical consultations in Bani Walid.