Libya’s Detention Centres: An Issue Aggravated By War, Deepened By Foreign Policy


Amidst ongoing violence throughout Libya, refugees and migrants held within detention centres are treated like animals. The atrocities at Zintan’s detention centre recently gained international attention, with bodies revealed to be left to rot inside. A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said to Al Jazeera: “Living areas are severely overcrowded and lack proper ventilation. In some parts of the centre, toilets are overflowing and are in urgent need of repair. As a result, solid waste and garbage has piled up inside the cell for days and presents a serious health threat”. Zintan is just one of dozens of centres throughout Libya that have violated basic human rights.

According to the UNHCR, 60, 000 asylum seekers are held in Libya and ongoing conflict has displaced 90, 500 Libyans within the past two months. “Detention centres were not built to house people. They’re often warehouses that have now been used for the storage of people instead of for goods” said Sam Turner, leading Médecins Sans Frontières’ mission in Libya. He stated to Euronews, “We sometimes call the cells hangars, due to being […] big, long, open rooms where hundreds of people are packed in and locked inside. People are sleeping on concrete floors with sometimes a very thin mattress with very little access to the outside world”. Detention centres are often built in former schools, their windows bricked up; people living off instant noodles for months. The spaces are cramped, often less than a square metre per person. The deteriorating security situation places 3,919 of the 5,378 people in Libyan detention centres in proximity to conflict according to the UNHCR; a quarter (27%) are children. Last September, violent clashes between rival militias forced hundreds of refugees from Tripoli to Zintan; the compound was overflowing, its captives begging for medical aid. Doctors from the International Medical Corps recently visited, but only spoke to captives through a small window, refraining from entering the site.

Leaked footage depicts mountains of rubbish, piles of faeces and maggot infested bedding. A UNHCR spokesperson stated: “In Zintan and detention centres across Tripoli people are enduring dire conditions… An outbreak of TB is spreading fast. It is critical that people being held in Zintan and other detention centres in Tripoli are evacuated”. Turner said that “The level of suffering in Libyan detention centres has increased significantly since the onset of fighting in and around Tripoli… meagre provisions of food to those held in these centres has become even more scarce and some people report going days without eating”. Whilst Zintan has now been evacuated, other sites continue to hold occupants, their people living on what few resources are available.

Libya’s criminal landscape has flourished since Gaddafi’s death. Its weak governance was wrecked by an abrupt power vacuum, and this was only compounded by neighbouring authoritarian regimes which have heightened human trafficking and smuggling. Libya acts as a key transit point for migrants attempting to access Europe, and with its detention centres overrun, ongoing conflict and the struggles of peacemakers to find effective long-term solutions only heighten the issue. Over one million migrants managed to reach European shores in 2015, and continued operations by the EU and other partners have made some efforts towards deterring the crisis. Libya remains attractive for smugglers; its close vicinity to Italy and its political instability are huge advantages for those trying to sneak through the country. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, stated that though thousands successfully enter Europe, 400,000 migrants remain trapped in Libya (although unofficial estimates place it up to one million people). UNHCR reports only 60,000 refugees; numbers remain vague, owing to ongoing conflict distorting what little information is available.

UNHCR calls for all refugees to be evacuated from detention centres, rife in TB and short supplied. One of the sites being subjected to raids, Qasr bin Ghashir near Tripoli, was reported by The Guardian to have had occupants shot indiscriminately by Libyan militia. As a result, many people were evacuated to neighbouring sites, making those areas vulnerable to attacks. Sites are receiving people faster than they can be evacuated; the UNHCR reported that in May alone, 1,224 people were captured by the Libyan coastguard – more than the rest of the entire year combined. Many facilities are run by militia groups, outside the eyes of the state. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), expressed his concern about ongoing human trafficking and suspicious disappearances, and highlighted the ongoing sexual exploitation of women, stressing that “Libya has a heightened duty of care to protect the lives of individuals deprived of their liberty, including providing them with the necessary medical care”.

The Guardian reports on Libya’s disturbing ‘market of human beings’: detainees claiming to be forcibly recruited by militias. Three detention centres are alleged to have been coercing refugees into manual labour, carrying military equipment and being installed at military bases throughout the country. Another centre reported that some were taken by fighters never to be seen again. “We even washed the cars that were full of the blood of the soldiers who were killed on the war front,” said one detainee. “They put the dead bodies in the military cars. I’m not feeling good, but I don’t have a choice here.” Judith Sunderland, associate director for the Human Rights Watch stated, “Forcing civilians to stockpile weapons in a warzone counts as abusive forced labour, [and] is unlawfully cruel… Making them wear uniforms suggests they are being used as hostages or human shields, both of which are war crimes”.

The Libyan coastguard, crucial for intercepting refugees, receives its funding from the EU, attempting to decrease migration from Africa. One detainee said “They know what is going on in the Libyan detention centres, but the EU pretend like they don’t know… Libya is not the right place or a safe place for refugees and migrants to stay. They should stop bringing back those who tried to cross the sea”. Giulia Tranchina, a human rights solicitor who maintains direct contact with refugees held inside these detention centres, has called on Europe to stop funding the Libyan coastguard. Turner calls for all migrants to be evacuated, stating the ongoing conflict surrounding Tripoli has only exacerbated the issue.

A shift in EU policy is demanded by multiple organizations. Though the EU’s co-operation with Libya has drastically reduced illegal migration, the cost of human life remains high; Italian patrols tirelessly intercept boats, returning refugees back to war-torn Libya. Trapped in a legal loophole, migrants are unable to go back home nor migrate elsewhere. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has criticized efforts to counteract migrant smuggling, arguing that current policies – which work towards dismantling smuggling networks, reducing the availability of vessels and building barriers to make the journey more difficult – fail to suppress the roots of the issue. Its elimination remains impossible as long as the demand for illegal smuggling remains strong; a sustainable approach to economic and social development is required. This is no easy task, and migrant smuggling remains a humanitarian issue, resulting in large-scale suffering and unnecessary loss of life. In the hope of addressing this problem, as well as everyday civilian casualties and the ongoing issues within detention centres, the UN Support Mission and the EU have now called for another cease-fire. So far, UNICEF estimates that the conflict has affected 1.6 million people.

Jonno McPike

Student at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Focusing on education policy and its role within foreign aid.
Jonno McPike

About Jonno McPike

Student at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Focusing on education policy and its role within foreign aid.