Libya: Recurring violence against migrants and refugees forces MSF to suspend activities in Tripoli detention centers

Inside Abu Salim detention, pictured in 2017. Detainees spend months in appalling conditions in Libyan detention centers without knowing when they will be released.
Libya 2017 © Guillaume Binet/Myop
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TRIPOLI/NEW YORK, June 22, 2021–Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will temporarily suspend activities in Mabani and Abu Salim detention centers in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, following repeated incidents of violence towards refugees and migrants held there, the international medical humanitarian organization announced today. 

“This is not an easy decision to make, as it means we won’t be present in detention centers where we know people are suffering on a daily basis,” said Beatrice Lau, MSF head of mission in Libya. “However, the persistent pattern of violent incidents and serious harm to refugees and migrants, as well as the risk to the safety of our staff, has reached a level that we are no longer able to accept. Until the violence stops and conditions improve, MSF can no longer provide humanitarian and medical care in these facilities.”

Since February this year, incidents of ill-treatment, physical abuse, and violence against people held in these detention centers have increased. In just one week, MSF teams witnessed firsthand or received reports of at least three violent incidents resulting in severe physical and psychological harm.

Indiscriminate violence

During a visit on June 17 to the Mabani “Collection and Return” detention center—where at least 2,000 people are estimated to be held in severely overcrowded cells—MSF teams witnessed acts of violence carried out by the guards, including the indiscriminate beating of people who attempted to leave their cells to be consulted by our doctors.

The MSF team received reports of heightened tensions the previous night that culminated in mass violence, leaving migrants, refugees, and guards with injuries. MSF treated 19 patients with injuries sustained in the violence, including fractures, cuts, abrasions, and blunt trauma wounds. One unaccompanied child was left unable to walk after suffering serious wounds to their ankles. Others told our teams about physical and verbal abuse from guards.  

Earlier the same week, on June 13, automatic weapons were fired on people held in Abu Salim detention center, causing multiple casualties, according to reports received by MSF teams. For seven days following the incident, MSF teams were refused access to the detention center, raising concerns about the consequences of delayed or denied treatment for people with potentially serious injuries or for those who are critically ill.

Desperate conditions

The increase in violence in detention centers coincides with a significant rise in the number of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard, which is funded by the European Union (EU). Those intercepted by the Libyan coastguard are forcibly returned to Libya and locked up in detention centers. As of June 19, more than 14,000 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya this year, exceeding the total number of forced returns for 2020.

This has resulted in severe overcrowding and a deterioration of the already desperate conditions inside detention centers, most of which lack ventilation and natural light. Some are so overcrowded that up to four people share 10 square feet of space—forcing people to take turns lying down and sleeping. People also lack consistent access to clean water and hygiene facilities.

Migrants and refugees also do not receive enough food in detention. Many receive just one or two small meals a day, usually a small piece bread with cheese or a plate of pasta to share amongst many. MSF doctors observed that, because of the lack of food, people sometimes use medication to manage the hunger. The lack of nutritious food has resulted in some women being unable to produce breastmilk to feed their babies. One woman told MSF teams she was so desperate to feed her five-day-old baby that she tried to give the baby a ration of solid food so they wouldn’t starve.

In such inhumane conditions, tensions frequently result in eruptions of violence between guards and people arbitrarily detained inside.

“Our colleagues have seen and heard of vulnerable men, women, and children, already held in desperate conditions, being subjected to further abuse and life-threatening risks,” said Ellen van der Velden, MSF operations manager. “No further people intercepted at sea by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard should be forced back to Libya and into detention centers.”

MSF calls for an end to the violence and improvement of conditions for refugees and migrants trapped inside Mabani and Abu Salim detention centers. MSF also reiterates its call for the end to the longstanding practice of arbitrary detention in Libya, and for the immediate evacuation from Libya of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants exposed to life-threatening risks—including those in detention centers.

MSF has worked in detention centers in Libya since 2016, providing people with basic health care and psychosocial support. MSF teams also identify vulnerable people and refer patients requiring specialist care to hospitals across Libya. In Zuwara, a new MSF program provides medical, psychosocial, and protection services to refugee and migrants communities. In Bani Walid, our teams offer general health care and medical referrals to refugees and migrants who have escaped from captivity and to victims of torture and trafficking. MSF also provides technical support to Libya’s National Tuberculosis (TB) Program, run by the National Center for Disease Control, and runs a TB program in Misrata.

In the first half of 2021, MSF teams working in detention centers in Tripoli provided medical care to 8,920 patients, conducted 9,248 medical consultations, and arranged the referral of 405 patients to hospitals across the city.