More than 5,000 migrants and refugees, including hundreds of children and women, were rounded up in weekend raids, while a UN fact-finding mission finds migrants and detainees have been particularly exposed to violations since 2016.
The Libyan authorities have rounded up and detained more than 5,000 migrants and refugees in sweeping weekend raids, according to the latest tally by the United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
While raiding houses and makeshift shelters in the Gargaresh district in southwest Tripoli, where many migrants and asylum seekers live, children and women were also arrested.
In the crackdown that began on Friday, the UN reported, one migrant was shot dead and at least 15 others were injured, six of them seriously.
The IOM tally, dated October 3 and obtained on Monday by The Associated Press news agency, showed 215 children and over 540 women were taken to various detention centres across Tripoli. Among them, at least 30 were pregnant. A communications shutdown during the raids barred access to information and assistance.
The Libyan authorities have described the raids as a security operation against illegal migration and drug trafficking. In a statement on Saturday, the UN called on the government to investigate the use of excessive force against the migrants and immediately release the most vulnerable.
"Unarmed migrants were harassed in their homes, beaten and shot," assistant UN Secretary-General and resident coordinator for Libya, Georgette Gagnon, said in a statement.
“Most of those persons arrested are now being arbitrarily detained including in detention facilities operated by the Directorate of Combating Illegal Migration, under the Ministry of Interior,” the statement added.
The IOM document, which said 5,152 migrants had been detained since Friday, says numbers are likely to increase as the crackdown continues in several parts of the area, also known as the Andalus neighbourhood.
According to the report, the migrants and refugees have been taken to detention centers in the capital of Tripoli.
At least 4,187 of the detainees, including 511 women and 60 children, were sent to the Mabani detention center, well over its capacity. The Abu Salim center received at least 570 migrants, while at least 390 others were taken to Share al-Zawiya, including the 30 pregnant women and 155 children.
UN fact-finding mission finds evidence of 'crimes against humanity'
For years now, Libya has been a major transit point for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty across Africa and the Middle East. The North African country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Human rights groups and the UN have repeatedly denounced the abuses in Libya’s detention centres across the country.
On Monday, investigators from a fact-finding mission commissioned by the Human Rights Council said they had found evidence war crimes have been committed in Libya since 2016 by all parties to the conflicts that have plagued the country. It also found that “violence perpetrated in prisons and against migrants there may amount to crimes against humanity.”
“Migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees are subjected to a litany of abuses at sea, in detention centres and at the hands of traffickers,” said one of the investigators, Chaloka Beyani. “Our investigations indicate that violations against migrants are committed on a widespread scale by State and non-State actors, with a high level of organization and with the encouragement of the State - all of which is suggestive of crimes against humanity.”
The experts cite reports indicating that the Libyan Coast Guard – which has been trained and equipped by the European Union as part of efforts to stem the number of arrivals to Europe across the central Mediterranean route – has mistreated migrants and handed some over to detention centers where torture and sexual violence are “prevalent.”
In a July report, Amnesty International published new evidence of violations against migrants held in detention centres, including those run by Libya’s Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), a branch of the Interior Ministry. They include sexual violence at the hands of guards and being forced to barter sex for clean water, food and access to sanitation.
Based on interviews with more than 50 refugees and migrants in detention in Libya, 49 of whom were detained directly following their interceptions at sea by the Libyan coastguard in 2020 and 2021, the report highlights what it terms the “shameful” consequences of the EU’s ongoing cooperation with Libya on migration and border control.
As of September 25, more than 25,000 people had been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard since the beginning of the year, while more than 1,100 have died while attempting the journey, according to the IOM.
“Wake up call”
The European Union condemned the use of violence in the recent crackdown. EU spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said the bloc had long been calling on Libya to find an alternative to the system of arbitrary detentions in managing the migrant population.
“While fully supportive of Libyan sovereignty, the EU also strongly encourages Libyan authorities to refrain from the use of lethal force in these operations," she said.
Alexandra Saieh, Libya advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said refugees and migrants in different parts of Libya are scared to leave their homes, for fear of being detained.
“People are quite horrified,” she said. “This is really a ‘wake-up call’ to the dire situation that exists in Libya for migrants and refugees and the international community must step up.”