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TRIPOLI – Following repeated incidents of violence towards refugees and migrants held in two detention centres in Tripoli, Libya, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has announced that we feel obliged to temporarily suspend our activities in Mabani and Abu Salim detention centres.
“This is not an easy decision to make, as it means we won’t be present in detention centres where we know people are suffering on a daily basis,” said Beatrice Lau, MSF head of mission in Libya. “However, the persistent pattern of violent incidents and serious harm to refugees and migrants, as well as the risk to the safety of our staff, has reached a level that we are no longer able to accept.”
“Until the violence stops, and conditions improve, MSF can no longer provide humanitarian and medical care in these facilities,” Lau added.
Since February this year, incidents of ill-treatment, physical abuse and violence against people held in these detention centres have increased steadily. Over the space of just one week, our teams witnessed first-hand, and received at least three reports of, violent incidents resulting in severe physical and psychological harm.
During a visit on 17 June to Mabani ‘Collection and Return’ detention centre, where at least 2,000 people are estimated to be held in severely overcrowded cells, MSF teams witnessed acts of violence carried out by the guards, including the indiscriminate beating of people who attempted to leave their cells to be consulted by our doctors.
Our team received reports of heightened tensions the previous night that culminated in mass violence, leaving both migrants and refugees, as well as guards, with injuries. MSF treated 19 patients suffering from injuries caused by the beating, including fractures, cuts, abrasions and blunt trauma. One unaccompanied child was left unable to walk after suffering serious wounds to the ankles. Others spoke of physical and verbal abuse by guards.
Earlier the same week, on 13 June, automatic weapons were fired on people held in Abu Salim detention centre, causing multiple casualties, according to reports received by our teams. For seven days following the incident, MSF teams were refused access to the detention centre, raising concerns about the repercussions of lack of treatment for those with potentially serious injuries and for the critically ill.
The increase in violence since the beginning of 2021 goes together with the simultaneous significant rise in the number of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers intercepted at sea by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard, forcibly returned to Libya and locked in detention centres. As of 19 June, over 14,000 people had been intercepted and returned to Libya, exceeding the total number of forced returns for the whole of 2020.
This has resulted in severe overcrowding and a deterioration of the already-desperate conditions inside. Most detention centres lack ventilation and natural light; some are so overcrowded that up to four people share one square metre of space, forcing people to take shifts to lie down and sleep. People lack consistent access to clean water and hygiene facilities.
Additionally, migrants and refugees receive insufficient food to eat, with just one or two small meals a day, usually a small piece bread with cheese or a plate of macaroni to share amongst many. Our doctors have observed that, with the lack of food, people sometimes use their medication to manage their hunger.
The lack of enough nutritious food has resulted in some women being unable to produce breastmilk to feed their babies. One woman told MSF teams she was so desperate to feed her five-day-old baby that she tried to give her ration of solid food to her infant so it wouldn’t starve.
In such inhumane conditions, tensions frequently result in eruptions of violence between guards and people arbitrarily detained inside.
MSF calls for an end to the violence and improvement of conditions for refugees and migrants trapped inside Mabani and Abu Salim detentions centres. We also reiterate our call for the end to the longstanding practice of arbitrary detention in Libya, and for the immediate evacuation from Libya of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants exposed to life-threatening risks – including those in detention centres.
“Our colleagues have seen and heard of vulnerable men, women and children, already held in desperate conditions, being subjected to further abuse and life-threatening risks,” said Ellen van der Velden, MSF’s operations manager. “No further people intercepted at sea by EU-funded Libyan coastguard should be forced back to Libya and into detention centres. Violence in detention centres must end and all those trapped in these inhumane conditions must be released.”
MSF has been working in detention centres in Libya since 2016, providing people with basic healthcare and psychosocial support. MSF teams also identify vulnerable people and refer patients requiring specialist care to hospitals across Libya. In Zuwara, a new program provides medical, psychosocial and protection services to refugee and migrants communities. In Bani Walid, our teams offer general healthcare and medical referrals to refugees and migrants who had escaped from captivity, and to victims of torture and trafficking. MSF also provides technical support to Libya’s National Tuberculosis Programme, run by the National Centre for Disease Control, and runs a TB programme in Misrata.
In the first half of 2021, MSF teams working in detention centres in Tripoli provided medical care to 8,920 patients, conducted 9,248 medical consultations, and arranged the referral of 405 patients to hospitals across the city.