Stop arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants disembarked in Libya

An MSF team member inside a detention center in Libya.
© MSF
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PARIS/AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK, JULY 24, 2018—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calls for an end to the arbitrary detention of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants in Libya. Conditions in already overcrowded detention centers are getting even worse after a dramatic increase in the number of people intercepted in the Mediterranean and disembarked in Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard, which is supported by the European Union.

At least 11,800 people have been returned to Libya from unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean so far this year according to UN organizations, with interceptions in international waters between Italy, Malta, and Libya taking place on an almost daily basis. Upon disembarkation, people are transferred to unregulated detention centers along the Libyan coast, where many are held in inhumane conditions.

"People who have just suffered a traumatic life or death situation at sea should not be transferred to a system of arbitrary detention that is harmful and exploitative," said Karline Kleijer, MSF's emergency program manager. "Many have already endured alarming levels of violence and exploitation in Libya and during harrowing journeys from their home countries. There are victims of sexual violence, trafficking, torture, and ill treatment. Among the vulnerable are children—sometimes without a parent or guardian—pregnant or breastfeeding women, the elderly, people with mental disabilities, and people with serious medical conditions."

As a result of increased interceptions at sea, MSF teams on the ground in Misrata, Khoms, and Tripoli report a sharp increase in the number of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers being held in already overcrowded Libyan detention centers. In a single day, MSF recently provided medical assistance to 319 people intercepted at sea and brought to a detention center in Tripoli. Most of these people had been held captive by traffickers for several months before trying to cross the Mediterranean. Around Misrata and Khoms, MSF is treating detainees suffering from second-degree burns, scabies, respiratory infections, and dehydration. On one occasion, a group of people intercepted at sea were brought to the detention center without clothing, having lost everything at sea.

"In Khoms there are over 300 people, including very young children, locked up in an overcrowded detention center," said Anne Bury, MSF's deputy medical coordinator in Libya. "The heat is stifling; there is no ventilation and very little access to clean drinking water—[what they get] is saltwater mixed with sewage. The situation is untenable in the detention centers; it's very tense, and people are exposed to abuses of all sorts. People here are desperate—we're seeing detainees with wounds and fractures. There are escape attempts, and some people are on hunger strike."

With no formal registration or proper record-keeping in place, once people are inside a detention center, there is no way to track what happens to them. Detainees have no option to challenge the lawfulness of their detention or treatment. Evacuation programs run by the UN Migration Agency (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to help people get out of arbitrary detention were scaled up late last year, but they only reach a limited proportion of the total refugee and migrant population in Libya.

The principal measure, facilitated by IOM, involves increasing so-called "voluntary" returns of migrants from detention centers to their countries of origin, with around 15,000 people repatriated since November. When this is truly voluntary and allows people who want to return home to do so, it is a positive development. However, the voluntary nature of these repatriations is questionable, given that people have no other formal alternative to get out of the detention centers. UNHCR has also evacuated just over 1,000 of the most vulnerable refugees in detention, but most have been taken to Niger, where they urgently await resettlement to other countries.

The current situation is a result of attempts by European governments to prevent refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers from reaching Europe at all costs. A key part of the strategy is equipping, training, and supporting the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea and return them to Libya. Returning people to Libya is something non-Libyan ships cannot lawfully do as the country is not recognized as a place of safety. People rescued in international waters in the Mediterranean must not be returned to Libya, but should be taken to a safe port, in line with international and maritime law. 

"This cannot be considered an acceptable solution to prevent arrivals to Europe," said Kleijer. "Refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants intercepted at sea should not be returned to Libya, nor should they be detained there on an arbitrary basis in inhumane conditions."

For about two years, MSF has been providing medical care to refugees and migrants held in detention centers nominally under the authority of Libya's Ministry of Interior and its agency for combating illegal immigration (DCIM) in Tripoli, Khoms, and Misrata. Detainees are not guaranteed access to medical care, which is provided by a handful of humanitarian organizations including MSF or by UN agencies that manage to have a limited presence in the country despite widespread violence and insecurity.

In addition to providing lifesaving referrals, MSF medics treat detainees for medical problems mostly caused or aggravated by the lack of consistent or adequate medical assistance and inhumane conditions inside the detention centers. This includes respiratory tract infections, acute watery diarrhea, scabies infestations, and urinary tract infections. Many patients have suicidal thoughts and display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. On a regular basis, MSF sees patients with psychiatric conditions requiring inpatient care that are often linked to, or exacerbated by, being detained in poor conditions.

Learn more about the arbitrary detention of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers in Libya here.