Last month, amid shocking news that scores of refugees and migrants had been killed in an airstrike at a Libyan detention centre, officials in the turbulent North African country quickly promised to close down those facilities for good.
But, almost one month after the July 2 attack that killed 53 detainees and injured at least 87 others – mostly sub-Saharan Africans who were looking for better lives in Europe – and the opposite has happened.
Some 200 migrants and refugees have since been locked up at the bombed-out facility in Tajoura, in a suburb of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and little has been done to release those held in the war-torn country’s other detention centres.
Worse still, the new detainees include migrants who were picked up by Libya’s coast guard after their ship capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on July 26 – a disaster that claimed as many as 150 lives and was dubbed the “worst tragedy” on the risky crossing so far this year.
After the second calamity, the UN’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, said that the time had come for Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to free the thousands of refugees in lockups under its control.
“What is required is that they be shuttered,” Salame told the UN Security Council via a video link from Tripoli.
“I urge the council now to call upon the authorities in Tripoli to take the long-delayed but much-needed strategic decision to free those who are detained in these centres.”
Some 5,000 refugees and migrants are held in detention under the auspices of the GNA, said the Lebanese diplomat, 3,800 of them on the front lines of the fighting in the country’s civil war.
The UN mission in Libya, known by the acronym UNSMIL, has “devised a plan” for an “organized and gradual closure of all detention centers” and now needs a green light from the UN’s 15-nation body to roll it out, Salame said.
He did not reveal any further details of his plan, and InsideOver’s request for further details from UNSMIL was not answered. It remained unclear whether Salame had the backing of Security Council members.
Salame also criticised the European Union (EU) for backing a scheme that sees Libya’s coast guard intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean before returning them to Libya and caging them in places like Tajoura.
“The international community can prevent another tragedy. I urge European countries to respond to… repeated pleas to revisit policies and move migrants and refugees to safety,” Salame added.
Salame is not alone. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and other pressure groups have repeatedly bashed the EU for bemoaning the ill-treatment of migrants in Libya while at the same time backing schemes that give rise to abuses.
An EU spokesperson told InsideOver that it supports Libya’s coastguard in a bid to prevent refugees and migrants drowning at sea, but that the 28-nation bloc was vehemently against their detention back on Libyan soil.
In a report earlier this year, called No Escape from Hell, HRW detailed nightmarish conditions for detained migrants in Libya, who “face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labor.”
“Everyone locked up in these miserable places is detained arbitrarily,” Judith Sunderland, a director for Europe and central Asia director at HRW, told InsideOver in an interview via email.
“There is no due process, no judicial oversight, and virtually no way to get out of detention except through escape, bribes, being sold out to smuggling networks, or by doing forced labour off-site and then being able to escape or being released from there.”
But according to Sunderland, the EU is complicit, because it finances, trains and assists the Libyan coastguard, which captures migrants at sea, and also provides aid to those that end up in lockups back in Libya.
“EU policies perpetuate a cycle of extreme human rights abuses against migrants and asylum seekers in Libya,” Sunderland said.
“Fig-leaf efforts to improve conditions and get some people out of detention do not absolve the EU of responsibility for enabling the barbaric detention system in the first place.”
UN bodies, including the International Organisation on Migration and the refugee agency, UNHCR, have worked to assist detained migrants and have arranged for some of them to be released and returned to their home countries.
Some have been vetted and gained refugee status in Europe, while others have been resettled elsewhere, such as Niger. But these schemes have only helped a fraction of the estimated 300,000-500,000 refugees and migrants in Libya.
The situation is complicated by turbulence across Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed president Moamer Kadhafi and saw the country spiral into a civil war that persists today.
The airstrike that killed migrants at Tajoura occurred after renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive in early April to seize control of Tripoli.
Pro-GNA forces weathered the initial onslaught and since then, fighting has remained deadlocked on the outskirts of the capital, with both sides resorting to air attacks in recent days.
The fighting since April has killed nearly 1,100 people and injured more than 5,750, according to the UN’s World Health Organization. More than 100,000 civilians have fled their homes.
The GNA has blamed Haftar’s forces for Tajoura; an LNA spokesperson denied this. So far, there has been no investigation into who ordered the attack, though it is understood that only LNA forces have access to warplanes.
Elinor Raikes, a Europe and North Africa director for the International Rescue Committee, an aid group that operates in Libya, said life would remain tough for refugees and migrants until the GNA, LNA and others put down their guns and started talking.
“After years of chaos in Libya, the warring parties must be brought back to the negotiating table and leading powers, chiefly the US and Europe, should recognise the immense convening power they have to bring about a diplomatic resolution,” said Raikes.
“Without a more united political and diplomatic approach by international actors, we can have little confidence in seeing an end to this war.”