Torture, extortion and arbitrary detention in both government detention centres and at the hand of vicious human traffickers: this is the daily reality for thousands of migrants and refugees in Libya. Before 2011, the country was a popular destination for foreign workers drawn by a strong economy. Following a 2008 treaty with Italy, Libyan authorities strictly controlled onward migration. But when Libya's longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the situation changed dramatically.
Amid the collapse of central authorities and the persistence of conflict, Libya emerged as the major departure point for Africans hoping to reach Europe. Between 2014 and 2017, some 625,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy by boat from Libya. In response, Europe has hardened its Mediterranean borders by criminalising rescue NGOs and building up the Libyan Coast Guard's (LCG) capacity to intercept migrant vessels at sea, thereby leaving many trapped in what is often referred to as an endless cycle of violence.
Few know as much about the daily horrors facing migrants and refugees in Libya as Giulia Tranchina. For years, the London-based immigration solicitor specialised in asylum and human rights work has been in daily contact with refugees in Libya via messaging apps, spending much of her free time trying to expose their plight. Tranchina's work on Libya has been covered by numerous international media, including The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Associated Press, The Times, The New York Times and many others. In this interview, Tranchina discusses European efforts to keep refugees and migrants from crossing the Mediterranean and how UN agencies often fail to protect them.
You are in daily contact with refugees in Libya. What kind of messages do you get these days?
For example, I am receiving desperate messages from a detention centre in Zintan, where some 380 refugees are being held, mostly Eritreans. They are very far from Tripoli, in the Nafusa mountain area, where they have been abandoned since September 2018. These people are living and sleeping on top of each other in very unsanitary conditions. Over 25 people have died in Zintan since November 2018, most of them from starvation and tuberculosis.
This summer, the detention centre was attacked twice by armed men firing gunshots at the guards of the centre. Then, a month ago, as a result of a power shift in the area, the guards handed the centre over and around 200 soldiers from the Joint Force entered the camp. It is not clear what is going to happen now. The refugees were told that they might get taken somewhere else, but no one is telling them where. They are at risk of being transferred to some other horrific lager, made to do forced labour for the army, or abducted and sold to traffickers. The detainees in Zintan have been left to rot for years and they have now reached a situation of total desperation.
According to Libya's internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), there are currently 11 active detention centres run by government authorities. Therein, refugees and migrants are held indefinitely based on a law that criminalises the irregular entry into, stay in or exit from the country. Is Zintan a particularly bad case?
Unfortunately, conditions in all detention centres are horrific. For instance, in Tarik al-Sikka, which is an 'official' detention centre in Tripoli that also serves as the headquarters of the Libyan Directorate for the Combat of Illegal Migration (DCIM), food and water might be more available. But then there are secret underground cells where male detainees are often tortured. During the day the male detainees are usually made to do forced labour.
What is Europe's role in all of this?
European governments are paying millions to Libyan authorities through the European Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) in a very non-transparent manner - not to speak of funds going to Libyan authorities through informal channels. European governments pay so that Libyan authorities keep refugees from crossing the Mediterranean.
At the same time, Europe is pushing back people at sea, these days usually by using private vessels to do so. Perhaps even more importantly, Europe has built up the Libyan Coast Guard through the provision of equipment, training and funds. Since 2016, the Libyan Coast Guard has intercepted some 60,000 people in the Mediterranean and returned them to Libya. And despite the fact that Libya is a war-torn country and Libyan coast guards conduct 'rescues' with violence, Europe has orchestrated and the declaration of a Libyan search and rescue area.
Doing all of this, rather than fighting traffickers, Europe is feeding the brutal market of human trafficking. In Libya, migrants are seen as commodities to profit from - through torture for ransom, or sexual exploitation. Migrants are also used by Libyan authorities to receive funds from Europe. Although these funds are theoretically intended to improve conditions in detention centres, they are regularly diverted, because there are no monitoring mechanisms whatsoever.
Is there any proof that European money is going to detention centres?
There isn't. But when talking to refugees in detention centres, I have often been told that money has been received by the people running the centres. For example, the centre's authorities would claim that they are not going to feed the migrants detained there because the funds from the EU are finished.
Sometimes, there are deliveries of items such as hygiene kits, mattresses, blankets with an EU logo on the boxes. But there is no way of making sure that Libyan authorities do not actually seize their deliveries of aid. I have been consistently told by refugees who were detained in Abu Salim and Al-Khums [also known as Souq Al-Khamis] that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) would bring mattresses and deliver other aid materials that were subsequently locked up and taken away at night by the centre's authorities.
To what extent can Libyan authorities be deemed responsible for the crimes committed against migrants and refugees in the informal camps run by traffickers? After all, the latter are not affiliated with the GNA.
For instance, we know that in Bani Walid, in the South of Libya, the Libyan police are constantly entering the camp. It is a huge torture camp run by traffickers, but they do so with police complicity. Some of my clients here in the UK, who are underaged minors, were captured by the Libyan police, then taken to Bani Walid and sold to the traffickers. The stories are horrific. One of my clients, a 15-year-old Eritrean boy, was tortured for a year and a half in Bani Walid. He tried to kill himself and, as a punishment for having tried to do so, was tortured to the point that he lost the use of his leg.
Omar Shatz, lecturer of international law, criticises the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for serving as a for the EU in Libya. What is behind this criticism?
European politicians claim that, by giving money to UN agencies such as UNHCR and IOM in Libya, they are paying for refugees' assistance. However, the reality is that UN agencies are powerless in Libya. The only really valuable programme is the evacuation programme managed by UNHCR, taking people to Niger and Rwanda as temporary transit places and then relocating them to safe EU countries.
Unfortunately, the number of evacuation and relocation places pledged by EU countries is utterly inadequate. There is a section of the EUTF which is not even focused on funds to the UN agencies. It clearly states that funds are going to Libya, in order to prevent irregular migration, including by building up the Libyan Coast Guard or supporting Libyan authorities to monitor and patrol its Western and Southern border.
Since 2015, the EU has mobilised more than 500 million euros for migration-related projects in Libya. A substantial share of the EUTF funding in Libya goes to the IOM's 'voluntary' return programme, which has assisted over 50,000 people to return to their home countries since 2015. What do you make of this?
Migrants in Libya are suffering horrific human rights abuses. These returns cannot all be considered voluntary. While such a programme might be life-saving for some of the migrants in Libya, it is hypocritical because the same efforts are not undertaken to make sure that refugees in detention centres are taken to safety. Many people detained in official detention centres are actually persons of concern registered with UNHCR, who are entitled to international protection. Meanwhile, Libyan authorities unlawfully deport asylum-seekers back to their own countries, in violation of international human rights law.
According to UNHCR, migrants and refugees are currently held in detention centres under the control of the Libyan Ministry of Interior. That is a substantial decrease from the more than 5,000 held in such centres in January 2019.
Some detention centres have closed, which is good news indeed. The problem is that they closed due to very tragic circumstances. For example, last year, in July, an airstrike hit the Tajoura detention centre, killing 53 people and injuring over 130, according to official statistics. However, survivors reported to me that more than a hundred people died, three of which were killed when the detention centre's guards opened fire on them, as they were trying to escape the inferno.
What does the future look like for refugees in Libya?
Unfortunately, I am very pessimistic about the future, these are really dark times. But I would still like to believe that the suffering of fellow human beings will eventually have to matter again. As civil society, we will continue to advocate against our governments' criminal migration policies.