Libya: The Ongoing Crisis For Displaced People

Facing arbitrary detention and grave human rights abuses, the crisis for migrants and asylum seekers in Libya continues to this day. The majority of people displaced by conflict seek asylum in Europe by undertaking the highly dangerous journey of crossing the Mediterranean. As of 2017, the main route for this crossing was between Libya and Italy. However, the European Union continues to fund and support the Libyan coastguard, focused on intercepting migrants and refugees at sea and returning them to Libya. As such, the European Union is complicit in the horrific conditions and suffering faced by displaced people in Libya. It is imperative that governments of the European Union redirect their focus to providing routes to safety for refugees and asylum seekers.

Arbitrary Detention

In Libya, it is a criminal offence to illegally enter, stay and exit from its territory. Displaced people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe therefore commonly end up being arbitrarily detained in detention centres, where they are exposed to horrific abuse. It is estimated by Médécins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) that there are usually 3,000-6,000 arbitrarily detained in these centres at a time.

Dhar-el-Jebel is an example of one of these “official” centres. According to MSF, approximately 500 displaced people remain detained there, with over 100 of these detainees being unaccompanied children. Conditions in detention centres such as Dhar-el-Jebel have been exposed as being profoundly inhumane- displaced people are forced into overcrowded, squalid conditions, with limited access to hygiene and medical facilities. In May 2019, MSF traveled to Dhar-el-Jebel and found what they described as a “catastrophic medical situation” which included a tuberculosis outbreak. They reported that approximately 22 displaced people died from tuberculosis, alongside other diseases, between September 2018 and May 2019. Christine Nivet, the MSF Project Coordinator in Libya, stated that some individuals in Dhar-el-Jebel have been arbitrarily detained there for three years. The reality is that those seeking safety increasingly find themselves stuck in Libya, caught up in a conflict and subjected to horrific abuses.

Human Trafficking

On top of the refugees and migrants detained in official detention centres, there is an unknown number of individuals detained by traffickers. In Libya, human trafficking is rife. Individuals who set out to seek asylum in Europe through Libya have no choice but to utilise smuggling networks. However, displaced people are exposed to huge risks during this process. MSF described displaced people relying on criminal networks to reach Europe as commonly being “sold and resold from one intermediary to another.” Migrants and refugees are commonly detained by these criminal networks and smugglers until they are able to pay an additional amount of money for release. In regard to the suffering of displaced people at the hands of these criminal networks, MSF stated: “We have seen the broken bodies and heard stories of burning plastic poured on skin, daily beatings, and torture inflicted during a phone call to the victims’ relatives to convince them to pay.”

The scale of the suffering refugees and migrants face in Libya cannot be overstated.

The Role of the E.U

The reality is that containment and push back policies of the European Union are directly contributing to the suffering of displaced people in Libya. The European Union and Italy formed agreements with Libya whilst it was under Gaddafi’s control, which entailed providing funding in return for the containment of displaced people in Libya. In 2010, Gaddafi visited Italy and warned that Europe could “turn into Africa” unless E.U. governments paid Libya to prevent migrants and refugees from crossing the Mediterranean.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, EU governments have continued to implement extremely hostile containment policies. In an attempt to prevent displaced people from reaching Europe, the E.U. has ceased search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and continues to provide funding to the Libyan coastguard. An example of these policies in action can be seen through the renewal of the deal between Italy and Libya in February 2020. The deal entails Italy’s agreement to fund and equip the Libyan coastguard. This aims to prevent displaced people from reaching Italy’s shores, by allowing the coastguard to intercept them at sea, resulting in them being returned to Libya. Amnesty International has described this deal as “a shameful display of how far EU governments are prepared to go to keep refugees and migrants from Europe’s shores.” Additionally, Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch stated: “Italy can’t paper over its complicity in the suffering of migrants and refugees who fall into the hands of the Libyan coastguard.”

According to UNHCR, approximately 40,000 migrants and refugees have been intercepted and returned to Libya since the deal with Italy was initially signed three years ago. Upon return to Libya, it is known that displaced people will face horrific conditions and suffering. However, E.U. states are willing to turn a blind eye to this and therefore remain complicit in this suffering, as a means of preventing those seeking safety from reaching their shores.


It is imperative that refugees and migrants are evacuated from Libya- however, the system as it stands is significantly limited. Humanitarian evacuations of asylum seekers in Libya have been established by UNHCR, involving transportation to Niger, where they will have their refugee status assessed. They then may be resettled in a safe third country. However, this process is highly limited, due to there being a mere 2,000 places available per year for resettlement of refugees from Libya. Women, families and young children are currently prioritised for these places. Therefore, for young men- who make up a significant proportion of displaced people in Libya- the chances of evacuation and resettlement are very slim. As a result, the effect of these limited mechanisms is that thousands of displaced people remain stuck in Libyan detention centres, with little hope of a solution.

There is a dire need for policy reform in order to move towards humanitarian solutions for refugees stuck in horrific conditions in Libya. The international community must call for the closure of Libya’s detention centres and focus should be shifted towards finding humanitarian solutions. MSF has called for the establishment of mechanisms of protection, including shelters where displaced people can remain safe until their evacuation is organized. Additionally, the EU should take steps to establish safe and legal routes for claiming asylum in Europe. This is imperative, to prevent asylum seekers from being forced to rely on criminal networks, alongside undertaking highly dangerous journeys, in order to seek safety.

It is also of the utmost importance that the EU puts an end to its brutal containment policies. As long as displaced people are intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya, the desperate situation will continue. Europe must act in accordance with its obligations regarding asylum under international law and must put an end to its practice of prioritizing border security over human lives.

The suffering of refugees and migrants in Libya should spark worldwide outrage. It is a travesty that vulnerable people forced to flee their countries of origin become trapped in a desperate cycle of abuse and suffering, which continues to be facilitated by European states. Serious reform must be implemented as a matter of urgency, to allow those trapped in Libya to exercise their fundamental human right of seeking asylum.

Lauryn Sinclair


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