The EU’s Failure: Libyan Detention For Vulnerable Migrants


At the start of this month, the Tajoura detention centre in Tripoli, Libya, was attacked. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), scores were killed, and many were left critically injured. The detention centre held 600 migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom were women and children. However, the airstrike is just the latest example of the appalling and dangerous conditions in which vulnerable asylum seekers and migrants must survive. Despite numerous calls from several prominent refugee and human rights agencies (including the UNHCR, the IOM, Human Rights Watch, etc.), the EU has continually outsourced refugee management and border protection to countries with dubious human rights records. In the case of Libya, the situation is worsened by an ongoing civil war, and a complete disregard for international law protecting migrants, and is particularly perilous for vulnerable asylum seekers. Systemic issues in the management and disregard of human rights law not only places these migrants and asylum seekers at risk in Libya, but also threatens the ethical use of Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) programmes, which provide funds for migrants and asylum seekers wishing to return home.

In 2017, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya, in which Italy and the EU provided funding and aid in return for Libyan officials and militias cracking down on irregular migration across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya’s ports. In a separate deal, Italy worked with and funded militia groups to remove the incentive for rogue militia to turn to smuggling. However, the funding provided by the EU and Italy are not conditional – that is to say, the Libyan government and militia are allowed to use tactics such as indefinite detainment and ill-treatment to deter future migration. While the EU does not necessarily condone the use of detention, it has done little to enact restrictions on future funding.

In some respects, the EU considers the relationship with Libya to be a success, particularly with respect to their AVR Programme. A spokesperson for the EU, in a statement made after the airstrike, outlined that, “We are also working closely with the IOM and the African Union and its Member States to continue the Assisted Voluntary Returns, thereby adding to the more than 45,000 migrants returned to their countries of origin so far.” However, there are some serious concerns about the ‘successfulness’ of the AVR programmes, particularly with relation to the Libyan detention camps. The most striking concern is that AVR is used as a last resort for migrants and asylum seekers trying to escape detention.

Vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers have been particularly susceptible to abuse and violence from those in power in Libyan detention camps. Libya has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Women and teenage girls often face the worst of the abuse. In a collection of interviews conducted by Amnesty International, one captive was quoted, “At night, some armed men come and take away women and 13-year old girls… The women and the very young girls are raped, and if they resist, they are beaten and threatened with guns.” Sexual protection is rarely used. Other vulnerable groups are also the subjects of extreme abuse. According to the Global Detention Project, children do not receive preferential treatment, are frequently placed in danger or abused, and separated from their parents; religious and ethnic minorities are physically abused by guards; and LGBT+ asylum seekers and migrants face severe sexual and physical torture. It is not just the most vulnerable groups that are sexually and physically abused. In a report conducted by the Women’s Refugee Commission, findings indicated that males were frequently sexually abused and assaulted. Often such abuse has an incredibly detrimental impact on the individual’s mental health, and the community more broadly.

Systemic problems with the management of asylum cases has been known to further complicate issues. In at least one instance, a gay asylum seeker felt that he was unable to explain his reason for seeking asylum as the UNHCR workers were Muslim. “They’re Muslims and I thought that if I told them, they might be unsympathetic because of their religious views, and transfer the information to the Libyan authorities, who might shoot me,” the man said in an article, published in the New Statesman. Females often face similar difficulties when seeking asylum from gender based violence.

Monica Encinas, a researcher for the Forced Migration Review, stated in 2016, “There are serious doubts about how ‘voluntary’ AVR programmes actually are, especially for women… Some NGOs feel that many refugees participate only because they are pushed into a corner after governments strategically cut them off from basic services and threaten deportation.” The situation in Libya is a clear example of this.

When the decision is between facing indefinite detention, and using an AVR programme to return home, most migrants and asylum seekers will gladly return home, even if the reasons for their departure, such as persistent persecution on the basis of gender, religion or ethnicity, remain. When combined with the abuse that many women, men and children receive, many of these individuals are returning home with fractured family or community structures, and in some cases severe mental health illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. While AVR programmes are a fundamental tool in migrant management, they should never be used as a bandaid for migrant flows. By allowing Libya to indefinitely detain migrants and asylum seekers, and prioritizing AVR instead of the wellbeing of migrants, Italy and the EU have effectively stripped scores of individuals of their right to protection under international law.

The EU must stop unconditionally funding and supporting Libyan coast guard and migrant detention. In doing so, the EU not only endangers countless individuals, but also provides rogue militias with access to desperate asylum seekers they can exploit for financial gain. It also places migrants in serious danger as the country continues to experience a civil war. The EU should work with Libya (and other states of departure into the EU), and relevant NGOs to form an effective, and sustainable migrant management system. This should include the ratification of both the 1951 Convention, and the 1967 Protocol in Libya. It could also include bilateral education programs on the treatment of migrants. More importantly, the EU should work with major NGOs such as UNHCR and IOM to create safe passages away from and around Libya to more stable countries in Northern Africa where asylum seekers can be processed, without facing indefinite detention, extortion and abuse.

The airstrike of the Tajoura detention centre might mark a turning point with regard to the EU’s unconditional funding of the Libyan border force. Currently the EU is pushing harder for Libya to release those trapped within indefinite detention. But this is by no means enough to make up for the systemic and cruel abuse that many have suffered. In a statement, the spokesperson for the EU claimed that, “we recall the need to put in place mechanisms that guarantee the safety and dignity of those rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard, notably by ending arbitrary detention and allowing the UN agencies to carry out screening and registration and to provide direct emergency assistance and protection.” While the airstrike has forced the EU to denounce the treatment of migrants by Libyan forces, it remains to be seen whether they will go further and work with Libya and migrant organizations to prevent future harm to those seeking a new life.