Libya: “You’re going to die here” – Abuse in Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centres

Libya: “You’re going to die here” – Abuse in Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centres

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants held inside detention centres in Tripoli, Libya have been assaulted, sexually abused, beaten, killed and systematically deprived of the most basic humane conditions, including proper access to food, water, sanitation and medical care, says Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Over the course of 2023, until MSF ended its medical activities in Tripoli in August, MSF teams witnessed and documented living conditions and abuses inside Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centres, where thousands of people, including women and children, continue to be arbitrarily detained. Their findings are contained in a report – “You’re going to die here” – Abuse in Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention centres – published by MSF today.

“We continue to be horrified by what we saw in Abu Salim and Ain Zara detention,” says Federica Franco, MSF head of mission for Libya. “People are utterly dehumanised, exposed every day to cruel and degrading conditions and treatment.”

According to MSF teams who provided medical care in both centres, mass and indiscriminate violence was frequently used by guards, often as a punishment for disobeying orders, requesting medical care, asking for extra food or in retaliation for protests or attempted escapes.

In Abu Salim detention centre, where only women and children are held, women spoke of how they were subjected to strip searches, intimate body searches, beatings, sexual assault and rape. These abuses were perpetrated by guards but also by men, often armed, who were brought in from outside the detention centre.

“That night, she [the guard] took us to another room in the prison, where there were men without uniforms, but maybe they were guards or policemen,” said a woman detained in Abu Salim. “When it was my turn, the woman told me that if I had sex with him, I could get out. I started screaming. She pulled me out and hit me with a pipe and I was taken back to the big room with the other women. There she told me: ‘You’re going to die here.’”

In Ain Zara detention centre, detained men told MSF staff about practices of forced labour, extortion and other human rights abuses, including the deaths of at least five people due to violence or lack of access to lifesaving medical care. MSF teams documented 71 violent incidents that took place between January and July 2023, with medics treating injuries including bone fractures, wounds on arms and legs, black eyes and impaired vision.

Detained people reported that violence was regularly combined with various forms of intimidation and degrading treatment, such as dirty water and sewage being thrown at women and children, meals being withheld as a form of punishment, and being forced to spend days without light.

“Hundreds of people are crammed into cells so overcrowded that they are forced to sleep in a sitting position, with sewage spills from overflowing septic tanks and clogged toilets,” says Franco. “There is not enough food and there is too little water to drink or wash with. Combined with the awful conditions, this has contributed to the spread of infectious diseases such as acute watery diarrhoea, scabies and chicken pox.”

Essential relief items such as clothing, mattresses, hygiene kits, blankets, diapers and baby milk formula were distributed only irregularly and were reportedly regularly confiscated by the guards. In Abu Salim detention centre, MSF teams saw the impact on babies’ skin from makeshift diapers made from towels and plastic bags, and from the prolonged use of diapers. Women said they were forced to use pieces of blanket or torn-up T-shirts as makeshift tampons and sanitary pads.

On top of the dire living conditions and inhumane treatment, people held in Abu Salim and Ain Zara were regularly denied access to lifesaving medical care and humanitarian assistance. ​ MSF teams were denied access to both detention centres, and to individual cells within the centres, dozens of times. While in Abu Salim, MSF teams documented more than 62 incidents of interference in MSF's medical assistance, including breaches of medical confidentiality and the confiscation of essential relief items.

MSF lost access to Ain Zara detention centre completely in early July, and to Abu Salim detention centre in August 2023. This loss of access and frequent obstructions to the provision of principled humanitarian assistance were a contributing factor to MSF’s decision to end its activities in Tripoli.

“After seven years of providing medical and humanitarian assistance in Tripoli, the appalling situation we have witnessed in Libya’s detention centres is a direct reverberation of Europe’s harmful migration policies aimed at preventing people from leaving Libya at all costs and forcefully returning them to a country that is not safe for them,” says Franco.

MSF calls for an end to arbitrary detention in Libya, and calls for all refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to be released from detention centres and provided with meaningful protection, safe shelter and safe and legal pathways out of Libya.

From 2016 until August 2023, MSF provided medical and humanitarian assistance – including general healthcare, mental health support, referrals for people with life-threatening conditions to specialist medical facilities, and the facilitation of access to protection services – to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants held in Tripoli detention centres and to those living in precarious conditions in urban settings in Tripoli.

Today MSF continues to work in Libya, currently in the regions of Misrata, Zuwara and Derna, and continues its search and rescue activities to assist refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who risk their lives crossing the central Mediterranean Sea.


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