UN urges Libyan government to shut ‘inhumane’ refugee centres

Call comes as Libya Quartet meets in Brussels to discuss ways to prevent deadly Mediterranean crossings

The UN refugee agency has called on the Libyan government in Tripoli to close its refugee detention centres, describing conditions as inhumane and shocking.

The call comes as the Libya Quartet meets in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss how to slow the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.

The Italian coastguard said that on Friday alone 2,100 people were rescued from the sea. Up to 17 May, 45,754 migrants from the Libyan coast have been rescued at sea and taken to Italy this year, more than 8,500 of whom arrived in the past two weeks. The figures represent a big increase on the same period last year.

The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said after a visit to Tripoli that he was “shocked at the harsh conditions in which refugees and migrants are held” in Libya, which he said was “generally due to lack of resources”.

“I hope first of all that asylum seekers and refugees can be taken out of detention centres. I fully appreciate that the government has security concerns,” he said, adding that “other solutions” could be found for people fleeing countries in conflict such as Syria and Somalia.

His remarks underline how the international community is struggling to find a political or moral solution to the refugee crisis. Thousands of migrants are being held in dozens of detention centres in Libya, some run by smugglers and some by the UN-backed government, either after being stopped on trafficking routes inside Libya or rescued inside Libyan coastal waters as they attempt the perilous crossing to Europe.

The EU is training the Libyan coastguard to step up its efforts to turn back boats if they are inside Libya’s own waters, but this will require higher-quality detention centres in the country and better efforts to stem the flow of refugees coming from Niger.

Grandi said he would seek to step up UNHCR efforts, including at places of disembarkation for people rescued or intercepted at sea.

The EU and Italy agreed in February to fund migrant centres managed by UN agencies, but progress has been slow due to the security crisis.

Separately, the Italian interior minister, Marco Minniti, agreed at a meeting in Rome on Sunday to set up detention centres in Chad and Nigeria, operating to UN standards.

Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, hopes to put the refugee crisis on the agenda of the G7 leaders summit in Sicily at the weekend as Italy feels it has been left alone to deal with refugees. As yet there is no clear US policy on Libya.

The Libya Quartet, which includes the Africa Union, the European Union and the Arab League, is likely to discuss the massacre of up to 140 civilians and soldiers at an airbase in southern Libya in one of the single most shocking incidents since the civil war started in 2011.

The massacre has been blamed on the Third Force militia, aligned to the government in Tripoli. Senior figures in the UN-backed military have been suspended amid questions about whether the UN can continue to back the Tripoli government.

The militia were attacking the Brak al-Shati airbase, held by troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army. A senior official in the main hospital in Brak al-Shati told Human Rights Watch that the hospital had received 75 dead as of 19 May, and that all had bullet wounds to their head.

The official said five corpses arrived at the hospital with bound arms, and another six had been disfigured in a way that suggested their heads had been run over by a vehicle.

The reported massacre has already damaged hopes of peace following a meeting on 2 May in Abu Dhabi between the two main protagonists of the Libyan crisis – Faïez Sarraj, head of the national unity government, and Haftar.

Expectations of a breakthrough are proving premature as Haftar works towards winning support for elections in 2018.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Libya rejects EU plan for refugee and migrant centres
Blow to Italy as Tripoli snubs proposal to set up processing centres in Africa

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

20, Jul, 2018 @2:23 PM

Article image
Most refugees in Libyan detention centres at risk – UN
Thousands of people at risk from militias, dwindling supplies and sickness, according to internal document

Diane Taylor

31, May, 2019 @11:58 AM

Article image
European and African ministers discuss plan to tackle flow of refugees
UN refugee agency, which is pushing for plan, says EU efforts to train Libyan coastguard is not enough

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

24, Jul, 2017 @4:00 AM

Article image
Sharp rise in proportion of migrants dying in Mediterranean, says UN
Refugee agency reveals fewer people crossing to Europe but one death for every 18 arrivals

Jon Henley European affairs editor

03, Sep, 2018 @9:41 AM

Article image
Italian charity ship defies Rome to rescue 50 off Libyan coast
Rescue could spark showdown with Rome after order not to bring migrants to Italy

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo and agencies

19, Mar, 2019 @11:50 AM

Article image
Mediterranean will be 'sea of blood' without rescue boats, UN warns
Refugee agency says risk of people dying attempting crossing is at its highest

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

09, Jun, 2019 @12:05 PM

Article image
‘It’s a day off’: wiretaps show Mediterranean migrants were left to die
Exclusive: Transcripts of conversations between Italian officials and Libyan coastguard contained in leaked file

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

16, Apr, 2021 @7:30 PM

Article image
Three NGOs halt Mediterranean migrant rescues after Libyan hostility
MSF, Save the Children and Germany’s Sea Eye suspend operations after repeated clashes with Libyan coastguard vessels

Jon Henley in London and Angela Giuffrida in Rome

14, Aug, 2017 @1:47 PM

Article image
Italy mulls temporary humanitarian visas to aid Libyan migrants
Move would provoke immediate Austrian response including closure of border with Italy at Brenner Pass

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

19, Jul, 2017 @4:00 AM

Article image
Libyan navy admits confrontation with charity's rescue boat
Navy spokesman reportedly says its patrol fired warning shots to MSF refugee vessel, but aid group says attackers fired at boat

Patrick Kingsley and Chris Stephen

28, Aug, 2016 @1:53 PM