Refugees face death, disease, and despair in Libya’s detention centers

Men look out of an opening in the main gate of a warehouse in Zintan detention center, south of Tripoli, where 700 people are being detained.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF
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Between 5,000 and 6,000 refugees and migrants are being arbitrarily held in deplorable conditions in Libyan detention centers, despite repeated calls by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for their protection and evacuation. A surge in conflict in and around Tripoli between the United Nations-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) since early April has only made their situation more perilous. The detention centers are nominally under the authority of the GNA Ministry of Interior, based in Tripoli.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
The main warehouse in Zintan detention center before it was emptied in June.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

Those farther from the front lines don’t fare much better. Away from the fighting, hundreds more are locked up indefinitely in harmful detention conditions, exposed to abuse and driven to desperation. South of Tripoli in the Nafusa mountains, people in need of international protection and registered as asylum seekers or refugees with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) have been languishing in detention for months or years with virtually no assistance.

From September 2018 to May 2019, at least 22 people died in in the Zintan and Gharyan detention centers, mostly from tuberculosis. Among the dead were young men, women, and an eight-year-old child.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
A man cuts his cellmate's hair in the main warehouse of Zintan detention center before it was emptied in June.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

In Zintan, some 700 people were locked in an overcrowded agricultural warehouse and 200 more were detained in a series of smaller buildings. Sanitation conditions in the main building were appalling. Detainees were locked inside with just four barely functioning toilets, no showers, and only sporadic access to water, which was not suitable for drinking.

A tuberculosis outbreak has likely been raging in the Zintan facility for months.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
Refugees in Zintan detention center try to protect themselves from the harsh sun outside the walls of the main warehouse.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

The main warehouse was emptied in June, and the detainees were distributed among the other buildings within the compound. Some now sleep in rooms of around 160 square feet with up to 20 other people.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
Detainees in Gharyan detention center were provided with only a chain and padlock to protect themselves against incursions by armed men in the absence of guards.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

Earlier this year, around 50 detainees in the poorest health were transferred from Zintan to Gharyan detention center, which became a heavily militarized area when the LNA took control of it during its offensive on Tripoli in April. In the absence of guards, detention center management reportedly provided them with nothing but a chain and padlock to protect themselves against incursions by armed men.

On June 26, 29 people were still in Gharyan detention center when GNA forces recaptured the town after heavy fighting that included air strikes. Detainees were terrified for their lives, with nowhere to go during battle. A week later, they were all relocated to Tripoli, where eight were referred for hospital treatment by MSF and 21 were transferred to a shelter program run by other nongovernmental organizations.

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Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
A detainee sits in the main warehouse of Zintan detention center.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

Most of the people detained in Zintan fled persecution and violence in Eritrea and Somalia. Some have been stranded in the detention center since March 2017. The most recent arrivals were brought to the center in May 2019 after being arrested at a checkpoint. But the majority were transferred to Zintan from various Tripoli detention centers in September 2018 after fighting broke out in the capital.

During recent fighting episodes in Tripoli, some refugees and migrants reportedly refused such transfers, rightly fearing they would be forgotten in Zintan, out of sight and with little or no access to medical care. 

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
A detainee shows his back covered in scars and wounds inflicted by traffickers while being held captive.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

Most have already been through horrific experiences in Libya. Many had been kidnapped by human traffickers and subjected to rape and torture. Without access to care, they still suffer the physical and psychological consequences.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
Detainees from Eritrea attend Sunday mass at a makeshift church built in Zintan detention center.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

Rather than being given a way out and the protection to which they are entitled, these refugees are condemned to an indefinite cycle of violence and detention.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
Detainees try to control a cellmate in distress.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

The levels of trauma and desperation, exacerbated by indefinite detention, are so overwhelming that several suicide attempts have been reported. Detainees frequently have to restrain cellmates in distress to stop them from harming themselves or others.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
Since the end of May, MSF teams have provided medical consultations and arranged referrals to hospital for detainees.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

MSF teams have been providing medical consultations to the detainees and arranging referrals to hospitals since late May 2019. Four referrals were arranged and more than 120 consultations were conducted during the first week of July. But with calls for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers going unanswered—and with no end to their arbitrary detention in sight—the care our teams can provide is woefully limited.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
MSF teams conduct a food distribution in the detention center.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

Nutrition is also a problem in the detention centers. Most of the meals provided consist of bread and pasta, which make for a very poor long-term diet, especially for people with medical conditions. The spread of tuberculosis within the detention centers also contributes to a vicious cycle of poor nutrition. Tuberculosis can cause malnutrition, which in turn increases the risk of contracting the respiratory disease.

In response, MSF teams have conducted several food distributions to supplement detainees’ diets with tuna, sardines, dates, and juices. We have also distributed powdered infant milk and hygiene items.

Migrants and refugees in Zintan and Gharyan detention centres in Libya
Detainees enrolled in a transfer program to return home, run by the International Organization for Migration, were sent back into detention after the program was cancelled.
LIBYA 2019 © Jérôme Tubiana/MSF

On June 3, UNHCR relocated 96 people from Zintan detention center to a UNHCR-run facility in Tripoli where they will await evacuation from Libya. Currently, 585 people remain trapped in Zintan.

Evacuations and resettlements of refugees and asylum seekers from Libya must be urgently scaled up. For many people trapped in detention centers, it is matter of life and death.