The UN has urged Libya to close its migrant detention centers, declaring them unsafe for sheltering human beings. The calls from the UN came after a deadly bombing on the Tajoura Detention Center on July 3 and an airstrike on another facility in Tripoli two weeks earlier, both of which killed over 50 people. In both cases most of the victims were African refugees who had been detained for trying to reach Europe on boats. 

The UNHCR also called for detainees to be released, but, according to spokesperson Charlie Yaxley, they were “given an option,” but “were not compelled” to do so. Within two weeks of the bombing, the Tajoura detention center had been reopened and taken in over 200 detainees, in defiance of the UN requests.

UN officials have said that the Tajoura attacks may amount to a war crime.

UN officials have said that the Tajoura attacks may amount to a war crime. In a statement, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) described the incident as “a terrible tragedy that could easily have been avoided.” Eye-witness accounts paint a picture of unimaginable horror. 

“I saw bodies everywhere, and body parts sticking out from under the rubble. Blood all around,” said a Libyan MSF doctor. “At some point, I had to stop, I couldn’t go further inside the ruins as there were too many dead. I would’ve had to walk over the bodies to proceed.”

Libya has been plagued by violence and sectarian fighting ever since the US-led overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed in 2011 after ruling the North African state for decades. Aside from the fighting itself, the current power vacuum in Libya exposes migrants and refugees to exploitation by human traffickers and other criminal elements. Not least among the risks are the shocking conditions inside migrant detention centers.

Several organizations have condemned the state of detention facilities run by the internationally recognized government across Libya, which the UNHCR has described as “appalling.” The death-toll in both of the recent bombings, which deliberately targeted the migrant detention centers, exposes the abysmal, degrading, and dangerous conditions in which migrants are being held. 

The UNHCR called for the facilities to be closed immediately and stated that it is willing to provide the necessary support to ensure that those being held are successfully integrated into surrounding communities. Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha initially paid lip-service to the need to close unsafe centers, but other government sources stated that migrants were still being transferred to such facilities, including the center in Tajoura, only a week after the bombings. 

Culpability for the bombings is still somewhat unclear, with the internationally recognized Al-Wifaq government, led by Faye al-Sarraj, and The Libyan National Army (LNA), loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, each accusing the other of bearing responsibility. LNA officials have claimed that their forces attacked an Al-Wifaq site near Tajoura on July 3 but claimed that pro-government militias had been responsible for the bombing of the center. 

The UNHCR has also condemned policies by several European states that cause migrants to be returned from Europe to Libya, despite warnings that the country is not safe.

The UNHCR has also condemned policies by several European states that cause migrants to be returned from Europe to Libya, despite warnings that the country is not safe. According to Info Migrants: “The EU has spent hundreds of millions of euros in Libya, equipping and training Libya’s coast guard forces to intercept migrants at sea and return them to the mainland. These EU funds are also used to house the migrants at detention centers, where there have been multiple reports of neglect, violence, sexual abuse, torture, forced labor and slavery.”

Around 350 migrants were being held in the Tajoura center when it was hit. Pictures released by Libyan officials show African migrants receiving treatment in a hospital after the strike. The World Health Organization (WHO) initially reported that the strike on Tajoura killed 53 and left over 70 injured but, according to Osman Ali, a spokesperson for the Tripoli ambulance service, the official death-toll may be an understatement. MSF put the number at at least 60. 

Following the attack, around 260 migrants immediately walked to a nearby UNHCR facility, where they were given emergency assistance, their ordeal not alleviated, but merely postponed. Many suffered hardship even during this short journey—two men told the Associated Press that they had been forced to clean and repair weapons at a nearby depot. (The proximity of this weapons depot to the detention center formed part of the reason it was deemed unfit to house migrants. Many fear that detention centers themselves are being used to store weapons, turning migrants housed at those facilities into human shields.)

55 of the migrants who were deemed the most vulnerable, many of them women and unaccompanied children, were permitted to stay under UNHCR protection for longer than others, before being transferred to a UNHCR departure facility to await evacuation to a safe country. Some of these individuals were among the 200 migrants returned to Tajoura upon its reopening. 

Whether the attack on the Tajoura Center was carried out by the LNA or by Al-Wifaq forces, the blame game should not stop at the shores of Tripoli… European policies contribute massively to the plight of migrants in Libya. 

Whether the attack on the Tajoura Center was carried out by the LNA or by Al-Wifaq forces, the blame game should not stop at the shores of Tripoli. The policies of European governments (some of which played a significant role in the destabilization of Libya in 2011) and the European Union contribute massively to the plight of migrants in Libya. 

According to UN figures, the EU-supported Libyan coastguard has returned four times as many people to Libya than have been evacuated out or resettled to safe countries. MSF and others have made desperate repeated calls for such policies to be amended, in the hope that the horror of these recent atrocities can be a catalyst for long-needed change. 

In a statement after the attack on Tajoura, MSF said: “MSF calls, once again, for the government to support the immediate closure of Tajoura detention center and the evacuation of all detained refugees and migrants out of Libya. The forced return of people fleeing Libya must stop, the cycle must be broken.” 

So far these pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and bodies are piling up as a result.