By Sally Hayden
Monday September 28, 2020
Migrants continue to endure arbitrary and indefinite detention in dire living conditions
An inflatable boat off the Libyan coast. Over the past three years, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been caught trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and detained without charge or trial. Photograph: Federico Scoppa/AFP/Getty
Refugees and asylum seekers who have been locked up in a remote Libyan detention centre for two years, after trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, are calling to be released or transferred, to be visited by UN representatives, and to be considered for evacuation to a safe country.
Hundreds of refugees were bused 180km southwest to Zintan detention centre, in the Nafusa mountains, after fighting broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli in September 2018.
Over the following year, at least 23 of them died – including one Gambian child and his father, and a Somali teenage girl – due to sickness, poor conditions and medical neglect. Two more died this year: one of apparent sunstroke, and another after a fire broke out.
The Irish Times is in contact with several detainees in Zintan. They described escaping war or dictatorships in Sudan and Eritrea, before trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017 and 2018. Some said they witnessed others drown, and are still suffering the effects of trauma.
They added they were being given pasta twice a day, with oil and salt, but nothing else. Sometimes, they say, they have the option of paying guards to buy them other types of food, but there is a steep mark-up.
Only select detainees are allowed outside to walk in an enclosed compound, and others stay locked up in indoor halls or cells, they say.
Last year, The Irish Times published details of a leaked UN report that said that up to 80 per cent of the hundreds of detainees in Zintan were thought to have contracted tuberculosis. At the time, an aid official with knowledge of the situation, said there had been “huge negligence”.
Caroline Gluck, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, said her organisation has not had access to Zintan detention centre since February.
“UNHCR has variable access to official government-run detention centres, due to security and access restrictions,” she said. “Access is not systematic and is contingent upon prior authorisation.”
Evacuations from Libya were put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Gluck said, but even if they begin again, refugees in Zintan detention centre cannot be chosen without staff visiting.
“Despite repeated calls for their release by UN agencies, especially in the light of Covid-19 pandemic prevention measures, hundreds of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants continue to endure arbitrary and indefinite detention in dire living conditions in Libya,” she said.
Over the past three years, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been caught trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and imprisoned, without charge or trial, in detention centres associated with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
The Libyan coastguard, which carries out interceptions, is trained, equipped and supported by the European Union, which has spent close to €100 million through its Trust Fund for Africa.
“You cannot imagine the hell that people live there in those lagers of detention,” he said. “All these people had was hope as they were crossing the sea.”