The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on the 4th of June that it had secured the “release of 96 detainees from Libya’s Zintan detention centre.” The UNHCR claims to have relocated these “detainees” to a “Gathering and Departure Facility” in Tripoli, where they wait to be evacuated from Libya. Food, shelter, medical assistance, clothes, shoes, hygiene kits and blankets have been provided to those rescued, according to the UNHCR. What this narrative of liberation and safety ignores is the recently circulated images from Zintan, depicting “detainees” protesting against human rights abuses inside the centre. Stood with their forearms stretched out in an ‘X’ shape, protestors hold signs reading “We are victim by UNHCR in Libya” and “We are abused by human rights organization”. These images, circulated by numerous news organisations, provoke scepticism toward UNHCR’s self-acclaimed title as the saviour of the 96 people released from Libyan detention.
Whilst those inside Zintan blame the UNCHR for the conditions, UNCHR claim Libyan authorities have impeded all efforts of NGOs to reduce suffering. A spokesperson claimed “…Our access is restricted. We are not able to access every individual, or every part of the centres. There is no detention centre in Libya suitable for hosting refugees and migrants”. Many have commented on the severe conditions in the Zintan detention centre. A 22-year old Eritrean, speaking to Channel 4 News, reported that “In Zintan, we are dying, starving, hungry, sick. A lot of people are developed [sic] mental disorders. I can’t explain my feelings, I can’t control because, because we are dying!”. International organisations have continued to deny responsibility for conditions inside the centre. Rupert Colville, UN rights office spokesperson stated, “We are deeply concerned about the ghastly conditions in which migrants and refugees are being held in detention in Libya… the conditions at Zintan Detention Centre amount to inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and may also amount to torture”. Similarly, The European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, also explained that conditions in Libyan detention centres are “Dire. It’s a disgrace. For the whole world.”
Although the UNHCR and EU representatives express concern for the conditions in Zintan, these statements ignore the disturbing images of protestors and the actions of the EU-funded Libyan Coastguard. Without overlooking the recent success of the UN Commission, the images of protestors in Zintan reveal that the UNHCR has not fulfilled its duty to protect all from human rights abuses. Of 26 migrant camps in Libya, Zintan is located in the desert over 180km from the capital, Tripoli. Given the extent of isolation, many inside claim neglect from the UNHCR. If the extent of human rights abuses is due to UNHCR negligence, perhaps the release of 96 people should not be commended so readily. Rather, the UNHCR must prevent people from reaching centres comparable to Zintan in the first place, ensuring the construction of suitable facilities in Libya that are able to accommodate for all displaced persons.
Any commandment of the UNHCR must also not ignore how these people got to the Zintan detention centre initially. The “detainees” the UNHCR refers to saving – Somalians, Eritreans and Ethiopians – are people with legitimate rights to asylum. Yet, a 90 million EUR initiative has provided funding and training to the Libyan Coastguard to divert migrants crossing into Europe via the Mediterranean. Once intercepted at sea, people are returned back to Libyan camps, such as the Zintan detention centre. In May, 1,224 people were returned to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard. More recently, on the 8th of June 2019, the Associated Press reported that the Libyan Coastguard had intercepted 22 migrants heading for Europe.
Both the EU and the UNHCR are condemning human rights abuses at Libyan detention centres, yet not acting in a manner which prevents people ending up there. The UNHCR, as the leading international body supporting refugees, must do more to safeguard the lives of those affected by war and conflict. 654 people still remain held in the Zintan detention centre, threatened by ill-health and a lack of resources resulting in famine-like conditions. It is unclear whether the UNHCR should be viewed as a saviour of the rescued 96, or as a culprit of the remaining 654, as the organisations inability to secure adequate protection of displaced populations is fuelling the fate of those still held in Libya.