Libya: Out of sight, out of mind

15 Jul 2019
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Between 5,000 and 6,000 refugees and migrants are arbitrarily held in Libya’s detention centres nominally under the authority of Tripoli-based Ministry of Interior.

The conflict raging on since beginning of April between the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) has only made their situation more perilous with little prospect of reaching safety any time soon, despite repeated calls for protection and evacuations.

Away from the battle area, hundreds remain locked up for indefinite period in harmful detention conditions, exposed to abuses and death, and driven into desperation.


South of Tripoli in the Nafusa Mountains, people in need of international protection and registered with UNHCR as asylum seekers or refugees have been left stranded in detention for months – and in some cases years – with virtually no assistance.

Between September 2018 and May 2019, at least 22 people died in detention, mostly from tuberculosis, in Zintan and Gharyan. Among the dead were young men, women, and a child of 8 years old.

In Zintan detention centre, some 700 people were locked in an overcrowded agricultural warehouse and others 200 detained in a series of smaller buildings.


The sanitation conditions in the main warehouse were ghastly.

Detainees were locked with four barely functioning toilets, buckets to urinate, no shower and only sporadic access to water, which was not suitable for drinking.

A tuberculosis outbreak has likely been raging for several months in the detention centre.

The main warehouse was emptied in June, and the remaining people distributed among the other buildings within the detention centre compound. Some are now sleeping in rooms of around 15m2 with up to 20 other people.


Earlier this year, some 50 of the detainees in the poorest health were transferred from Zintan to Gharyan detention centre, which became a heavily militarized area when the LNA took control of it in the course of its offensive on Tripoli in April.

Refugees were then provided by the detention centre management with a chain and padlock- reportedly in an attempt to protect themselves against incursions by armed elements in the absence of guards.

On 26 June, 29 people were still in Gharyan detention centre when GNA forces recaptured the town after heavy fighting that included air strikes. Detainees were terrified for their lives, with nowhere to go in the middle of the battle.

A week after, they were all eventually relocated to Tripoli: 8 referred for hospital treatment by MSF and 21 referred to an NGO-run shelters program


People detained in Zintan are mostly fleeing persecution and violence from Eritrea and Somalia.

Some are in Zintan detention centre since March 2017. The last arrivals were brought to the detention centre in May after being arrested at a checkpoint. But the majority were transferred to Zintan from various Tripoli detention centres in September 2018 after fighting broke out in the capital.

During recent fighting episodes in Tripoli, some refugees and migrants reportedly refused such transfer, rightly fearing they would be forgotten in Zintan, out of sight and with little access to medical care.


Most have already been through dreadful experiences in Libya. They had been kidnapped by people traffickers who subjected them to rape and torture. They suffer from both physical and psychological consequences.

Rather than being given a way out and the protection to which they are entitled, these refugees are condemned to an indefinite cycle of violence and detention.


The level of trauma and desperation, exacerbated by indefinite detention, is so overwhelming that several suicide attempts have been reported. Detainees frequently have to restrain cellmates in distress with several mental health issues to stop them from inflicting violence on themselves or others.


Responding against the backdrop of such critical situation, MSF teams provide medical consultations and arrange referrals to hospital since end of May. 4 referrals and over 120 consultations were conducted during the first week of July.

What our medical teams can achieve to alleviate people’s suffering is inevitably limited when our patients remain in the same protracted detention situation and left with their international protection needs unanswered.


Bread and pasta are the main food provided to people in detention, which makes a very poor diet when sustained over a prolonged period of time, especially for people with medical needs. In addition, tuberculosis can lead to malnutrition and in turn undernutrition increase the risk of tuberculosis.

MSF teams conducted several food distributions to enhance the diet with tuna, sardines, dates, juices. We also distributed powdered infant milk and hygiene items.


On 3 June, UNHCR relocated 96 people from Zintan detention centre to a UNHCR-run facility in Tripoli where they will await evacuation from Libya.

Currently, 585 people remain in Zintan detention centre.

Evacuations and resettlements of refugees and asylum seekers from Libya must urgently be scaled up. For many people trapped in detention centres, it is matter of life and death.

Photos taken by Jérôme Tubiana