By Airi Price
Once fleeing from the violence in their home countries, migrants seeking refuge in Tripoli, Libya now face further violations of their human rights. As civil wars rage in neighboring countries, Libya finds itself becoming the epicenter for migrants of various origins. This is especially true in the capital city of Tripoli, where the branch offices of UNHCR, UNICEF, and other humanitarian organizations reside. Recent protests on the front steps of such offices call attention to the ongoing abuse of refugees in the country. Tripoli’s detention centers, now filled to the brim with migrants, articulate the cruelty perpetrated by Libyan security forces.
As of September 2021, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), estimates there to be 42,210 registered asylum-seekers and 597,611 migrants present in Libya. Such notable presence of an immigrant population has incited severe xenophobia and scapegoating among Libyan officials, militia groups, and the media. 97% of the general population is comprised of the Beber and Arab ethnic groups.
With many immigrants originating from Egypt, Tunisia, and nations of Sub-Saharan Africa, the physical differences between them and native Libyans only emboldened discriminatory behavior. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated racial aggression, as black immigrants were targeted by authorities that declared them to be “carriers of disease.”
Libyan security forces have utilized such baseless, yet destructive, claims of refugee depravity to rationalize their crimes. Amnesty International catalogues the growing list of human rights violations – including unwarranted murder, coerced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and forced labor, among others. More recently in October of 2021, Business Insider Africa reported five consecutive days of mass arrests in Tripoli.
Within this period, over 5,000 refugees and migrants were unduly apprehended and cramped into detention centers throughout the city. Forces went as far to raid homes, while splitting up families and murdering defiant individuals in the process.
Al-Mabani is one such detention center, notorious for the abhorrent conditions that detainees are subject to. With the addition of barbed wire and heightened walls in January of 2021, the building transformed from a storage facility for cement into an illegitimate prison. The New Yorker reports that the center is run by a militia known as the Public Security Agency. Detainee grievances include overcrowding, violence, lack of ventilation, and no medical care.
Full photo credit: Euro-Med Monitor
Yet, further data of Al-Mabani’s population or functions remain severely limited. The only insight now offered to the international community is provided by Doctors Without Borders (or MSF). Through extensive efforts, MSF workers managed to provide medical care to detainees in Al-Mabani and one other detention center in Tripoli.
Their report of worker accounts illustrates horrific scenes of women and children left in open and unsheltered sections of the facility, men lying unconscious aside apathetic guards, and hundreds begging for food and water after having been left unfed for days.
The center is also known as Ghout Sha’al, referring to the neighborhood in which is resides. Primarily comprised of scrap yards, this often-overlooked part of the city is an ideal cloak for the brutality that occurs within Al-Mabani’s walls. Though Al-Mabani is a prominent focus of MSF, Amnesty International, UNHCR, and local humanitarian organizations, it remains relatively unknown outside of Libya.
Such clandestine nature is said to be intentional; according to the New Yorker, the European Union has spent the last six years funding and training the Libyan Coast Guard in seizing refugees sailing through the Mediterranean Ocean. Intercepted refugee groups were either fleeing maltreatment in Libya or sailing from elsewhere in hopes of receiving asylum in Europe. Whatever the point the origin, however, migrants were apprehended and redirected to Al-Mabani without due process. To date, Amnesty International has projected the capture of 60,000 women, men, and children from the Mediterranean.
Mass arrests of refugees both on the streets and shores of Tripoli have resulted in the exacerbation of already uninhabitable conditions. The New Yorker details the gruesome consequences of overcrowding an unsanctioned prison: 1,500 detainees are made to share eight cells, each fighting for space to lie down. Feces and urine lined the walls of the shower room, as there is just one toilet available for every 100 people. Amnesty International describes Libyan perpetuation of such facilities as “a callous disregard for people’s lives and dignity…” and urges state actors to cease the unlawful detainment of refugees.
Libyan security forces, however, may have little incentive to halt the detainment of refugees. As reported by the New Humanitarian, The EU has provided Libyan forces with over USD $107 million since 2017. The primary objective of this alliance is said to be minimizing the number of asylum seekers in Europe. Such illicit determent of migrants has been labelled by the international media as a shadow immigration system. When confronted with criticisms of their Libyan provisions, the EU contends that their funding is for the improvement of humanitarian conditions.
Yet, The Guardian reported on the extent to which EU member states have corroborated in the mass human rights violations of refugees. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Italian and Libyan authorities seized and pushed back 15,500 EU-hopeful migrants to Tripoli, reportedly aware of the torture perpetuated in the city’s detention centers. Earlier in 2021, the Libyan and Italian coast guard were also accused of deliberately ignoring the distress calls of a refugee boat – resulting in the drowning of 130 migrants in Libyan waters.
In speaking with The New Yorker, Libya’s former Minister of Justice, Salah Marghani, described the function of detention centers as “… a hellhole in Libya, with the idea of deterring people from heading to Europe.” Such a case of human injustice requires a reform of international response to the refugee crisis, as well as a reconsideration of our own morality.