MSF ceases operations in Libya and denounces “endless violence” in migrant detention centers

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ended its mission in Libya in December, after more than eight years there providing care and humanitarian assistance to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers locked in detention centers in Libya

MSF ceases operations in Libya and denounces “endless violence” in migrant detention centers

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ended its mission in Libya in December, after more than eight years there providing care and humanitarian assistance to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers locked in detention centers in Libya. Tripoli, the capital. On this occasion, the organization is publishing a report on the violence perpetrated against migrants detained by those responsible for the Abou Salim and Ain Zara centers. Returning from Libya, Julie Melichar, head of humanitarian affairs at MSF and author of the report, denounces in an interview with Le Monde, a “cycle of endless violence sponsored by the European Union”.

These are not prisons as we imagine them, they are enormous, overcrowded hangars, located in different places in Tripoli and in the rest of the country, where thousands of men, women and children are crowded together, mainly from West Africa, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Palestine… There are many children and unaccompanied minors, the youngest were born in the centers. In 2022, a quarter of our patients were under 19 years old.

The majority of people intercepted at sea while trying to flee Libya and forcibly brought back by the Libyan coast guard thanks to material and financial support from the European Union end up in these detention centers. There are also people arbitrarily arrested in public spaces, at home, at their workplace, sometimes during mass arrest campaigns.

These detentions are completely arbitrary. People are arrested for no real reason and have no way of contesting their detention or knowing its duration. Their only solution is to try to flee at the risk of their lives or to pay large sums of money through an informal extortion system to be released. The various UN reports on this subject are clear: several of these centers under the official responsibility of the prison authorities are an enterprise in which armed militias are involved, responsible for various trafficking.

The conditions are dire. People most often sleep on the floor. The food is of poor quality and too little in quantity. There is a lack of water, both for drinking and for washing. Basic necessities too: women were forced to make sanitary protection from old t-shirts or scraps of dirty blankets and diapers for their children from plastic bags.

Hygiene is catastrophic: toilets often overflow because they are not suitable for such a large number of people. I'll let you imagine the smell that reigns in this kind of place, it's inhuman. We have treated many cases of insomnia, suicidal thoughts, psychological trauma, skin and gastrointestinal diseases, directly linked to these inhumane conditions and mistreatment.

The list of human rights violations is unfortunately very long. We have collected numerous testimonies of sexual violence and rape in Abou Salim prison. When the women and children arrive at the prison, the guards force them to undress and carry out searches, searching between their legs and in the babies' diapers, touching their intimate areas.

In all centers, we observed indiscriminate violence, people beaten with iron bars, pipes, sticks. Some are sometimes subjected, under threat, to forced labor. In Ain Zara, in 2023, we were told of five deaths due to violence or lack of access to medical care.

Over the years, the EU and certain member states, including Italy, have put in place a system to ensure that people can no longer arrive on its territory from Libya. To do this, they supported the Libyan coast guard financially and materially, by delivering boats to them. Tens of thousands of people trying to flee the country are intercepted and forcibly returned, in complete violation of international law because the country is not considered safe. They suffer endless violence there, described by the UN as “crimes against humanity”, then try to escape again before being intercepted. I met people who were sent back to Libya ten times.

What MSF witnessed in the centers is a direct consequence of the border externalization policies and migration control put in place by the EU. She is the architect of this endless cycle of violence in which thousands of people find themselves trapped.

We are fundamentally opposed to the arbitrary detention of people exiled in Libya and by providing care in these centers, there is the risk of legitimizing or even facilitating the existence of this system. However, there was a humanitarian imperative to try to improve their medical and humanitarian conditions as much as possible. On several occasions, MSF has denounced the situation in these centers, but it has always been a balancing act full of ethical dilemmas to maintain access to these people who need help and ensure we protect our Libyan colleagues.

Today, there is a risk that detention centers will become complete black holes because the only actors who remain present in these centers are largely financed by European funds and therefore do not have the independence that MSF has. to denounce serious human rights violations.