What makes refugees and migrants vulnerable to detention in Libya? A microlevel study of the determinants of detention
1. Executive Summary
Libya is a key destination and transit point for people on the move. Since 2017 – when the European Union (EU) endorsed a deal between Italy and Libya to crack down on irregular migration from Africa to Europe along the Central Migration Route – Libyan authorities and local armed groups have detained thousands of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers in the country.
An increasing number of reports from human rights organizations have revealed that detainees face massive overcrowding, dire sanitary conditions, and rampant human rights abuses. While there has been significant discussion of the potentially harmful effects of the current detention system in Libya, little is known about arrest and detention patterns and which refugee and migrant profiles are more vulnerable to being detained.
This report examines the social, economic, and demographic determinants of detention of refugees and migrants in Libya. Drawing on surveys of 5,144 refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers, it compares the profiles and characteristics of those who reported being detained and those who did not in order to identify what factors make people on the move more likely to end up in detention. While the report focuses on the Libyan context, its findings have implications for understanding the drivers, dynamics, and consequences of migrant detention elsewhere. This is important given the growing trend among EU and other Western countries of outsourcing asylum and migration control to transit states in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
1.1 Key Findings
1 Beyond detention by Libyan DCIM officials and local armed groups, an additional three percent of respondents reported being kidnapped by smugglers in Libya. 2 The findings are based on 5,159 interviews conducted between May 2017 – June 2019. The sampling did not target individuals who were currently detained, as no interviews were conducted within the detention centres.
• Ten percent of people surveyed between May 2017 and June 2019 reported being detained in Libya, and the proportion of respondents experiencing detention increased over time. Three-quarters of detainees said they were not told why they were being detained, while a quarter claimed that they were held for ransom. Few of those detained reported receiving regular access to basic needs, including meals, drinking water, and sanitation facilities.
• Refugees and migrants of East African origin were four times more likely to be detained than those from West, Central, and North Africa. This finding held even when controlling for respondents’ gender, level of education, religion, previous occupation, migration status, and length of journey.
• Men were more likely to experience detention, regardless of age, religion, and level of education.
This could be due to the fact that detainees in Libya often serve as a source of manual labour and, in some cases, have been forcibly conscripted by armed groups. The report found no evidence that refugees and migrants from certain religions (e.g., Christians), ethnicities, or age groups were more prone to being detained.
• Respondents seeking to move to Europe were twice as likely to be detained as those seeking to remain in Libya or move to another non-European country.
This likely reflects the fact that many detainees had attempted to embark on sea crossings and were intercepted and detained by Libyan authorities and local armed groups, with the aim of deterring and punishing boat departures. Despite the crackdown, the proportion of respondents naming Libya as their final destination decreased significantly during our survey period, while the proportion intending to move to Europe remained relatively steady.
• Respondents who cited war, violence, and a lack of rights among the factors motivating their mixed migrations were more vulnerable to detention than those who did not. Movement is a complex process, and most respondents reported leaving their countries due to multiple factors – political, economic, social, and personal. But those who referenced violent conflict or persecution as a driver of migration faced a higher risk of being detained in Libya.
• Respondents who were detained were more likely to report facing another protection risk while in Libya, including witnessing a migrant death, sexual assault, physical abuse, kidnapping, and theft. At the same time, detainees were less likely to have experienced a protection issue en route to Libya. It therefore seems that detention exacerbates other protection risks, as indicated by investigations of detention conditions by humanitarian and human rights organizations.
• Particular payment arrangements for smugglers can make refugees and migrants more susceptible to detention. Respondents who reported not paying their smuggler until they arrived safely at their destination were four times less likely to be detained than those who made other payment arrangements (e.g., paying at the point of departure). Negotiating to pay smuggling fees upon safe arrival may therefore help refugees and migrants mitigate detention risk by giving smugglers an economic incentive to facilitate safe passage. This suggests that it is not necessarily whether people use smugglers that make them more vulnerable to detention, but how they use smugglers’ services.
• In a detention system where extortion serves as an important motivating factor, how easily refugees and migrants can be shaken down or exploited for their labor can influence their likelihood of being detained. Similar to how they paid their smugglers, respondents’ methods of accessing money during their journey also influenced their risk of detention.
Those who reported using formal transfers to obtain money – e.g., through Western Union or Moneygram – and those who used mobile money were less prone to detention, even when controlling for other factors. In contrast, respondents who reported carrying cash on them or working for money during their journey were at a greater risk of detention. These results indicate that refugees and migrants with secure ways of accessing money are less likely to be detained, while those who carry cash or are forced to seek work in transit are more vulnerable.