According to reports citing Julien Raickmann, Doctors without Borders (MSF) chief in Libya, “Those interned there, mainly refugees, keep dying of diseases and hunger,” “They are victims of violence, rape and arbitrary treatment at the hands of militias,” Raickmann added.
Benjamin Gaudin of aid organisation Première Urgence Internationale (PUI) echoed Raickmann’s statement. “Sometimes, the refugees are literally piled up on top of each other, under horrendous hygienic conditions and with great difficulty to access water,” Gaudin said. “Every now and then, there’s no drinking water whatsoever.”
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special emissary for the central Mediterranean area, said the EU couldn’t just continue with the agreed repatriations. “In a sense, the European countries are blind to the situation of migrants in Libya.”
The youngest fighting in Libya had exacerbated the situation, Cochetel added, referring to the offensive Libyan general Khalifa Haftar launched in April to capture Tripoli. More than one thousand people have died as a result, according to UN estimates. This adds to several clips released by several news outlets in February showcasing camps run by human traffickers. In one clip, a man is seen lying on the ground and screaming in pain from a blow torch directed at the soles of his feet. Another man was hanging head-down from the ceiling with a gun pointed at him. The militias were hoping to extort money from the victims’ families.
Desperation among the refugees was so great that in May, a man jumped off his shaky boat into the sea when he saw the Libyan coast guard approaching. German private sea rescue organisation Sea-Watch recorded the situation.
Rejecting the criticism, the EU said their agreement with Libya and specifically with the Libyan Coast Guard, had significantly reduced the number of refugee arrivals in Italy.
The European Commission (EC) also defended the course of action, arguing that some €336 million have been collected since 2014 for programs in connection with migrants in Libya.
However, the Council of European last month called for an end of the cooperation with the Libyan coast guard amid the devastating conditions.
The Libyan coast guard, meanwhile, argued that Libya was a “victim” of the migration flows. General Ajub Kacem said refugees were a “burden” for the country. He accused the EU of "lacking concern" for refugees’ fate.
Late on the night of July 2, the Tajoura detention center in Libya was hit by an airstrike, killing at least 60 refugees and migrants held there and injuring many others. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had warned about the dangers for months, calling for the urgent evacuation of vulnerable people trapped in a war zone. Sam Turner, MSF head of mission in Libya, writes about a horrific tragedy that should have been avoided, and who is to blame. A version of this article originally appeared in the British newspaper The Independent.
“When I arrived to Tajoura detention centre at 12:45 a.m. [on July 3], it was crammed with ambulances outside. The building that was hit was all but destroyed—the walls crumbled, debris everywhere. In place of the cell, there was just a huge hole. There was no one still alive in that room. I saw bodies everywhere, and body parts sticking out from under the rubble. Blood all around. At some point, I had to stop, I couldn’t go further inside the ruins as there were too many dead. I would have to walk over the bodies to proceed…. I knew many of the dead by name, I knew their stories.”
These are the words of a Libyan MSF doctor following the fatal airstrike on Tajoura detention centre late at night on July 2, that killed an estimated 60 people and injured 70 others. It is a night that will forever remain etched in this doctor’s memory—and the memories of all MSF staff in Libya—as a horrific nightmare. A night in which our worst fears would come to pass, fears which we have voiced for months in the futile hope that unnecessary suffering and death would be avoided.
Minutes after the airstrikes, our staff, who had returned from a visit to that same detention centre merely hours before, started to receive frantic calls. They rushed to the scene but there was little they could do. The over 130 innocent men and boys whose eyes they’d looked into earlier that day stood no chance, locked in the cell when the explosion tore through them.
I had been in Tajoura just two months earlier on May 8, the day after [an earlier incident when an] airstrike hit the detention centre. On that occasion, shrapnel from the blast tore through the roof of the women’s cell and nearly hit a baby sleeping on a thin mattress on the hard floor.
I can’t help but think of the people I might have met during my visits to Tajoura who were to be entombed in their cell. I remember the scared faces I saw in May, with any hope for their safety long forgotten. They protested their unending detention to us. We in turn raised the alarm, calling for the United Kingdom [and European Union governments] to reverse and oppose policies which trap people in these centres, and to support the immediate and urgent evacuation out of Libya of refugees and migrants held in arbitrary detention. We were adamant that there was no way this could continue.
But it did continue. This latest airstrike was the deadliest incident for civilians since the beginning of the fighting in Tripoli—accounting for over half of the civilian deaths, according to figures from the World Health Organisation. Beyond the fighting, instability in Libya exposes refugees and migrants to extremely high risks; they are preyed upon by the [criminal] underworld, traffickers, smugglers, and all those willing to exploit them for personal gain. These detention centres are places of indefinite incarceration with unspeakable conditions and no way out. Places where people are forgotten.
Less than one percent of the estimated population of refugees and migrants in Libya are in detention centres—approximately 5,600 people in total. In recent days we have seen strengthened calls from United Nations agencies and even the European Union, joining MSF in calling resolutely for an end to arbitrary detention in Libya. However, it is not simply about unlocking the doors, providing an illusion of freedom, and allowing politicians to wash their hands and conscience of the problem. Those who walk out of detention with empty pockets and nothing on their backs are still caught in the crossfire of a war that isn’t theirs, within the grasp of criminal networks and looking towards a precarious and uncertain future.
In the absence of timely solutions that offer any real hope, the only escape is the sea, and here is where the greatest hypocrisy lies. Since fighting began in Tripoli in April, the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard has returned four times as many people to Libya than have been evacuated or resettled to safe countries, according to UN figures. [On July 9], 90 people intercepted at sea were forcibly returned to Tajoura. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt denounced the airstrike on Twitter, but his words mean little while the EU governments continue to prop up the Libyan Coastguard.
The carnage in Tajoura was foreseen and should have been avoided. The international community waited until it happened and then condemned it, promising investigations. Who has named the dead? Informed their families or laid them to rest?
To add insult to fatal injury, despite the outrage following the attack, there are still 193 people detained in the graveyard of Tajoura, with the number growing every day.
Out of respect for all those who lost their lives, we must do everything in our power to stop this recurring nightmare. MSF calls, once again, for the immediate closure of Tajoura detention centre and the evacuation of all detained refugees and migrants out of Libya. The forced return of people fleeing Libya must stop, the cycle must be broken.