European policies continue to keep migrants in horrifying conditions in Libya and Niger

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF): Two years ago, horrifying images of migrants being sold as commodities in Libya were broadcast around the world. This sparked a global outcry and pushed many European countries (including the UK), some African leaders and Libya to promise measures to protect refugees and migrants from abuse and slavery-like conditions.

Yet today, according to UNHCR figures, for every person evacuated or resettled out of Libya, nearly four times as many are forcibly returned by the UK-supported and EU-enabled Libyan coastguard, in violation of International Law. 

Libya is a country fractured by armed conflict as rival governments and militias fight for control, and public services have collapsed. Yet the UK and its European counterparts continue to use it as a solution through their containment policies, which seek to keep migrants away from European shores at seemingly any cost.

MSF teams have been caring for migrants and refugees in Libya since 2017. They have witnessed the desperate situation of thousands of people, trapped in endless cycles of violence and condemned to languish in detention centres or left to survive alone outside.

Many detention centres, particularly in Tripoli, continue to be located in or near conflict areas. Some are in militarised zones or near military compounds, increasing the likelihood that they could be hit, killing or severely wounding the refugees and migrants who are trapped within. Previous incidents where this has already happened include:

  • October 2019: As the conflict outside intensified, over 400 detainees fled the Abusalim detention centre to seek refuge in the UNHCR gathering and departure facility (GDF) in the hope that they would be evacuated or resettled. To date 38 detainees remain held in the detention centre, which is located in south-west Tripoli. It is close to the shifting frontlines and to military warehouses, and is at risk of being caught in the crossfire.
  • 3 July 2019: The Tajoura detention centre, which housed almost 600 people, is hit by two airstrikes, killing 53 people and injuring approximately 130 others (IOM & EU Post-Tajoura Working Group).
  • 7 May 2019: The Tajoura detention centre is hit by a shell. It lands less than 100 metres from where women and children are sleeping. Shrapnel sprays the women’s shelter with one infant nearly hit by the blast.
  • 26 April 2019: Refugees and migrants in Qasr Bin Gashir detention centre are shot at and injured. At the time, over 700 unarmed men, women and children were trapped there.

Multimedia materials, including testimony on the situation inside Libyan detention centres, can be found here:

The mechanism for evacuating refugees from Libya to transit countries is currently working at an extremely slow pace due to lengthy procedures that use restrictive criteria and the overall lack of places provided by safe countries. So far, countries have only provided UNHCR with around 2,000 places each year for the resettlement of refugees from Libya to a third country. It is currently prioritising women, families and young children for evacuation. As such, a young, single man that fled political persecution in his home country and is now being detained in Libya has almost no chance of benefiting from it.

In contrast to this limited evacuation system, the European state-sponsored system of forced return to Libya is working at full capacity. From January to November 2019, 2,142 refugees were evacuated out of Libya by UNHCR. In contrast, nearly 9,000 people were forcibly returned there after being intercepted while attempting to flee by sea. European taxpayers' money, including the UK, is being used to contain people in inhumane conditions with one objective; to prevent them from reaching Europe.

There are currently 4,400 people trapped in Libyan detention centres (UNHCR) where they are held indefinitely and without trial. More are forcibly returned every day and as a result, the demand for evacuation and resettlement places will continue to outstrip availability.  Whether someone is returned to a detention centre or left on the streets to fend for themselves, Libya has never been a more dangerous place for migrants to be. 

In September, MSF resumed its Search and Rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean. Over the last four months, the Ocean Viking has rescued 1,030 people. Tragically, almost 700 others are known to have died or gone missing in the Central Mediterranean in 2019. These are just the people we know about. In 2019, it is estimated that for every 18 people that reached Europe, one died attempting the crossing. There is an urgent need for dedicated search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.

European Countries are pushing migrants back into abuse in Libya 

Yesterday, 18 December 2019, the Global Legal Action Network filed a complaint against Italy with the UN Human Rights Committee over Italy’s role in ‘push-backs’ to Libya that have resulted in the abuse of migrants detained there. The complaint is on behalf of an individual whose journey from Libya was intercepted at sea by the Panamanian merchant vessel, the Nivin. The complaint is the first to tackle the phenomenon of ‘privatized push-backs’, where EU coastal states engage commercial ships to return refugees and other persons in need of protection to unsafe locations, which is in breach of International Law.

On the afternoon of 7 November 2018, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre instructed the Nivin to rescue a migrant boat that was in distress and to liaise with the Libyan coastguard. The coastguard then directed the Nivin towards Libya, where the captured passengers began a stand-off, resisting their illegal debarkation. Libyan security forces violently removed them from the vessel after 10 days, using tear gas and both rubber and live bullets. The claimant was shot in the leg and was then arbitrarily detained, interrogated, beaten, subjected to forced labour and denied medical treatment for months.

During the stand-off, MSF carried out almost a hundred medical consultations on board the Nivin, directly witnessing the despair and extreme vulnerability of those on board. Our staff were prevented from accessing the area on the day of the forced disembarkation. People were injured, sent to detention centres, police custody or other similar facilities. 

Julien Raickman, MSF Head of Mission in Libya from September 2018 to September 2019 said:

“We had very little information at that time about their situation following the forced disembarkation, but some people we treated on the Nivin ended up in detention centres we regularly visit. Prior to the storming of the ship, we alerted the Libyan authorities and international organisations to the urgent need to come up with a solution to avoid violence and detention, but our efforts fell on deaf ears.

What occurred instead demonstrated a failure to provide much-needed protection for people seeking safety. The people on board the Nivin should not have been returned to Libya in the first place, but to a port of safety in accordance with international and maritime laws. All the way down the line, what happened to them is wrong, morally and legally. They were simply trying to uphold their rights, they were the victims but got treated like criminals. I am glad Forensic Oceanography and the Global Legal Action Network shed light today on the chain of events, the responsibilities of the various actors involved, primarily Italy, to do justice to the survivors. Some are still in Libya’s detention centres as we speak.

The tragic situation is the result of deliberate states’ policies to prevent refugees, migrants and asylum seekers from reaching its doorsteps at any cost, including by pushing them back illegally to a country where they fell prey to a litany of well-documented abuses.”

The legal submission made use of evidence in a report compiled by Forensic Oceanography, part of the Forensic Architecture agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, with Charles Heller as lead investigator.


The UNHCR has evacuated nearly 3,000 refugees from Libya to a transit centre in Niamey, Niger, since late 2017. There they join thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who continue to transit through the region of Agadez every year, looking for a safe and dignified future. In recent years those who travelled mainly within the continent have been joined by thousands of others expelled from Algeria. 

Between January and October 2019, migration flows across Niger doubled compared to the same period last year; from an estimated 266,590 in 2018 to more than 540,000 this year (IOM). The number of people who died during those journeys remains unknown.

The migrants, refugees and asylum seekers arrive on foot, with nothing but the clothes they are wearing, often exhausted and disorientated. They are usually picked up off the streets in Algeria, then put into detention centres where minimum standards of living conditions, judicial guarantees and protection are allegedly not being granted. Later they are dropped at ‘Point Zero’ close to the border with Niger, from where they have to walk around 15 kilometres to reach the village of Assamaka, in Niger.

Dozens of people expelled from Algeria have reportedly been subjected to violence during their deportation process, including instances of ill-treatment and rape. As our teams are only able to take a small number of testimonies due to time and access constraints, this likely represents a small fraction of the total number of people who are abused during expulsions, we believe the real figure is likely to be much higher.

The majority of people expelled from Algeria try to re-enter within 24 hours using smugglers operating in the area. At the same time, some Syrians, Bangladeshis and Yemenis get forcibly sent back to Algeria by Nigerien authorities. This has occurred on multiple occasions since the beginning of the year, with asylum seekers among them, this raises concerns about violations of international refugee law.

Policies criminalising migration are leaving people on the move at further risk of violence, abuse or exploitation. First-hand accounts collected by MSF over recent months reveal terrible ordeals. A folder of multimedia materials from Niger highlighting the situation are available here:

Search and Rescue in the Sahara desert

People continue to attempt to cross the Sahara desert, despite harsh weather conditions, perilous routes and their limited means making them extremely vulnerable. 

Men, women and children usually travel in vehicles with a capacity of about 25 to 30 people, though they are also sometimes forced to walk very long distances. In the extreme heat, adults can barely survive more than three days without water; for children, it is far less. As a result, those who get stranded can quickly die of dehydration. Piles of stones in the sand often mark the graves of those who have died, buried by the survivors. In October 2013, a group of rescuers found the bodies of 92 people near Arlit, a town in Niger around 200km from the Algerian border, mostly women and children.

In 2019, such tragic incidents continue in the Sahara, along the routes to or from Libya, and on the border with Algeria. In November, an expelled Malian who could not find the right way from Zero Point, on the Algerian side of the Niger border, to Assamaka in north Niger died just a few kilometres from it. People on the move usually carry water reserves, but they can be insufficient, particularly if they get lost or are abandoned.

To prevent the deaths of migrants who become stranded in the desert, MSF has recently begun Search and Rescue activities in the desert. We are supporting teams composed of staff from the Ministry of Public Health, desert guides and members of the local community. Since July 2019, teams have rescued over 40 people, and we have provided urgent assistance to 30 more. About half of the rescued or assisted people were Nigerien migrants, while the others were from Nigeria and Chad. These men and women had been either victims of a car crash or stranded due to vehicle mechanical problems. Most of them were suffering from extreme dehydration because of high temperatures and a lack of water points.

With no safe and legal alternative, Europe and the UK are pushing vulnerable men, women and children into the grips of exploitation by making their only chance of reaching safety contingent on risking their lives on dangerous journeys. They are left at the mercy of a criminal underworld who run the smuggling routes, or risk being caught and arbitrarily detained. 

There is an urgent need for humanitarian aid to be deployed more widely and transparently to migrants and refugees in Libya and Niger. The arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees must stop immediately. Containment in places where people’s basic rights cannot be guaranteed is not a humane solution to prevent people from reaching European shores.  Instead, shelters where people can be assured of safety and assistance must be set up as a matter of urgency, while their evacuation can be organised. But this can only work if the UK and Europe: stops returning people to Libya who have tried to escape by sea; provides dedicated Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean; and increases their resettlement commitments including humanitarian evacuation.


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