This month, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General submitted a report to the UN Security Council calling for the closure of 11 government detention centres in Libya. In the report, Guterres condemned Libya for the conditions of its detention centres which entail a significant number of human rights violations. Currently, more than 2,780 people are held in the centres and one-fifth of that number are children. The detention centres lack necessary oversight and regulation, suffer from a lack of food, and are overcrowded. In addition, there have been reported cases of torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and enforced disappearances taking place.
In his report, Guterres has called on the Libyan authorities to “fulfil their obligations under international law and to close all detention centres, in close coordination with United Nations entities.” Campaign groups such as Amnesty International have called the conditions “horrific” and “inhuman.” As well as calling for the end of arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees in Libya, Médecins Sans Frontières has drawn attention to the need to establish protection mechanisms and to organize evacuations.
Libya has been plagued by conflict since the 2011 overthrow of the country’s previous ruler, Gaddafi in 2011. Since then, the country’s 1,800 km coastline has been poorly monitored, encouraging refugees to transit through the country to reach their destination in Europe. However, this has been exploited by traffickers who trap refugees and migrants in detention camps. Things took a turn for the worse in 2017 when the EU endorsed the Malta Declaration between Italy and Libya to crack down on irregular migration along this route. In response to this, Libyan authorities detained thousands of refugees and migrants. The horrors that migrants and refugees face in Libya have been widely documented in the past. In 2017, a CNN report revealed the horrific truth that refugees and migrants were being sold in slavery auctions within the country. In 2019, migrants were the victims of an airstrike in the Tajoura Centre. Despite these incidents, nothing significant has changed.
Guterres’ call to close the Libyan centres is an appropriate first step; however, such closures must be thoroughly planned and coordinated. It is important to avoid refugees being transferred to unofficial centres run by armed groups or illegal traffickers. As Libya has no asylum system and has not ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, these global migration issues must be addressed via numerous channels.
There is an urgent need for humanitarian aid to be deployed more widely to migrants and refugees in Libya. Closure of the centres will be a positive move, only if refugees and migrants are provided with protection and assistance in the freedom of movement. It is important to note the role the EU plays here, as they have equipped Libyan forces to ‘rescue’ intercepted migrants and refugees at sea, and have unlawfully returned them to Libya and their inhumane detention centres. A report by the Mixed Migration Centre found individuals seeking to move to Europe were twice as likely to be detained as those seeking to remain in Libya or move to another non-European country.
Looking ahead, the international community has the moral duty and legal obligation under the 1951 Geneva Convention to assist the refugees and migrants in Libya. Alongside closure of the current dysfunctional detention centres, ensuring alternatives to detention is key. For instance, it is equally important to set up shelters to provide immediate and temporary protection for refugees and migrants in Libya. Without such measures, vulnerable people will continue to be condemned to arbitrary detention and continuous suffering.
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