Libya + 4 more

Country report - Immigration Detention in Libya: “A Human Rights Crisis” (August 2018)

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  • Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are regularly exposed to indefinite detention in centres run by the Interior Ministry's Department for Combating Illegal Immigration or local militias;
  • Detention conditions across the country are a matter of “grave concern,” according to the UN, as detainees are forced to live in severely overcrowded facilities with little food, water, or medical care, and suffer physical abuse, forced labour, slavery, and torture;
  • The automatic placement of asylum seekers and migrants intercepted at sea in detention centres places them at risk of human rights abuses, which could be attenuated by expanding the use of shelters and other non-custodial measures that have been proposed by international experts;
  • There do not appear to be any legal provisions regulating administrative forms of immigration detention and there is an urgent need for the country to develop a sound legal framework for its migration polices that is in line with international human rights standards;
  • There is severely inadequate data collection by national authorities concerning the locations and numbers of people apprehended by both official agencies and non-state actors;
  • Women and children are not recognised as requiring special attention and thus they remain particularly vulnerable to abuse and ill-treatment, including rape and human trafficking;
  • Italy and the European Union continue to broker deals with various Libyan forces to control migration despite their involvement in severe human rights abuses and other criminal activities.


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has characterised the plight of refugees and migrants in Libya as a “human rights crisis.”[1] Since the beginning of the 2011 civil war in Libya, the country has experienced on-going armed conflict between rival militias and government forces. The resulting lawlessness has enabled armed groups, criminal gangs, smugglers, and traffickers to control much of the flow of migrants,[2] sometimes with the direct backing of Italy and other European countries.[3] Those detained—who according to various reports can number between 10,000-20,000 at any given time[4]—often face severe abuses, including rape and torture, extortion, forced labour, slavery, dire living conditions, and extra-judicial execution.

Among the migrants who are particularly at risk of abuse in Libya are those from sub-Saharan countries, who are subjected to widespread racism, which has been exasperated by the crisis.[6] The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has reported on the emergence of burgeoning “slave markets” along migrant routes into Libya where sub-Saharan migrants are “being sold and bought by Libyans, with the support of Ghanaians and Nigerians who work for them.”

In May 2017, in a sign of how much the situation in Libya had deteriorated, the International Criminal Court (ICC) informed the UN Security Council that it was exploring the feasibility of an investigation into “migrant-related crimes” in the country. The ICC also reported on its efforts to “liaise with Libyan national institutions, interested European organisations … as well as national judiciaries, to streamline the activities of European and other actors in the investigation and prosecution of crimes against migrants.” Because many detention centres are under the control of militias, the ICC has called for “all detainees to be transferred to State authority, including … migrants detained for financial and political motivations.”

With one of the world’s largest oil reserves, Libya has been an important destination for migrant labourers, attracting workers from neighbouring Arab countries since the 1960s. By 2009, there were some two million Egyptians in the country, most of whom worked irregularly. In the late 1990s, Muammar Gaddafi’s shift to Pan-Africanism drew a growing influx of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries. A policy volte-face in 2007 led to the imposition of visa regulations for both Arabs and Africans—the distinction between the two not always being clear—and with it, thousands of immigrants suddenly became “irregulars.” During the 2011 uprising and ensuing civil war in Libya, close to 800,000 migrants fled, mainly to Tunisia and Egypt.

Libya has more recently become a transit country for migrants from across Africa and from as far away as Syria. By late 2017, international organisations estimated that there were more than 400,000 migrants in Libya, among whom some 45,000 were registered as refugees or asylum seekers, according to UNHCR. The majority of migrants—approximately 60 percent—are from sub-Saharan countries. However, the numbers of people embarking from Libya have begun to drop, as reflected in sharp declines of arrivals to Italy. As of mid-2018, some 20,000 people had arrived by sea; while there were nearly 120,000 arrivals in 2017 and more than 180,000 in 2016. By mid-2018, IOM estimated at least 679,000 migrants in-country.

The European Union (EU) began partnering with Libya in migration control efforts long before the onset of the current “refugee crisis.” Italian and EU arrangements with Gaddafi, including multi-million-Euro “migration management” projects, led to mass expulsions and a sharp increase in detention. Observers argue that these “externalisation” efforts helped spur the creation of “one of the most damaging detention systems in the world.”

Despite the widespread mistreatment of migrants in Libya and the on-going violence and social unrest since the overthrow of Gaddafi, Europe has continued to negotiate plans with various entities in Libya to check the flow of transiting foreigners. These include an EU commitment to provide hundreds of millions of Euros to bolster the country’s detention infrastructure, to equip maritime forces to intercept smuggling boats, and to provide training on human rights standards to staff of Libya’s Department for Combatting Illegal Immigration (DCIM), which is ostensibly in charge of overseeing the country’s detention system.

Deals have also been brokered with tribal authorities and militias linked to smuggling or human trafficking, who are closely interconnected with Libya’s detention system. As one source interviewed for this report said: “You said that some of the [facilities] have links to militias. I would push back and say, ‘Which facility does not have a link to a militia?’ … It’s impossible today to say that all of these security forces on interim contracts being paid by DCIM who are guarding these facilities are members of a proper security force.”

In early 2017, the Italian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) allowing the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats bound for Italy and return all those on-board to disembarkation zones in Libya, where they would subsequently be placed in detention. At the same time, Italy was paying rival militias to stop migrant boats in parts of the country not fully under government control, which have reportedly helped fuel armed conflict in these areas.

The UN human rights commissioner has levelled severe criticism at these deals, arguing that the “increasing interventions of the EU and its member states have done nothing so far to reduce the level of abuses suffered by migrants.” Despite the growing international outrage, an EU summit in mid-2018 “handed sea rescue mission responsibility” to the Libyan coastguard just as a new anti-immigrant Italian government began adopting a more heavy-handed approach that included blocking private vessels from docking asylum seekers in Italian ports. Italy’s Interior Minister argued that all migrants rescued by European vessels should be sent back to Libya.

International organisations have also been criticised for their role in Libya, in particular the IOM, which has been a key implementing partner for EU projects in the country. It has provided “human rights training” for detention centre staff, offered psychosocial support and healthcare, has helped renovate detention centres, and overseen an EU-financed “assisted voluntary return program,” which is one of the few ways migrants can exit detention centres. A journalist who visited Libyan detention centres quipped about the return program: “While many of the detained migrants I spoke with in Libya expressed a desire to go home after months of suffering in decrepit facilities, it’s unclear whether their return could ever be considered voluntary. Treat anyone bad enough and they will beg to make it stop.”

For its part, the IOM vociferously defends its operations in Libya, arguing that they cannot choose with whom they work in detention centres and that they are “one of a few humanitarian organizations providing aid inside.” Said the IOM's operations officer for Libya, “We are not the body that determines what is a detention center and what is not.” The organisation has criticised the automatic confinement of “rescued” migrants in Libyan detention centres and called for finding “alternatives,” including re-opening an IOM-run shelter.

The proliferation of actors involved in the detention of non-citizens in Libya raises a number of concerns related to oversight, jurisdiction, and accountability, as well as the real possibility that any external support for detention will inexorably amount to support for criminal activities. Pointing to militia involvement in operating detention centres in Libya—in addition to the roles played by the IOM and other non-state actors—one writer argues that the close association between detention and criminality in the country raises disturbing questions about the implications of Europe’s financing of migration control: “In many countries that are targeted for more migration management assistance—like Libya—there appears to be an inevitable connection between legal and illicit forms of detention and removal because of pervasive lawlessness and corruption.”