Situation update: Migrants and refugees returned to Libya now in overcrowded detention centres

Over the past two weeks, MSF teams in Libya have observed a sharp increase in the number of people held in detention centres in Misrata and Khoms. The number has grown from 650 at the beginning of the year to 930 today. This increase comes as vulnerable refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers have been intercepted or rescued at sea and brought back to Libya in violation of international law. Last week, 117 people drowned in a separate incident in the Mediterranean.


European authorities are failing to provide lifesaving search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean. Instead, the UK and European governments are directly supporting forced returns to dire conditions in Libyan detention.

“It is beyond cynicism that the EU and its Member States continue to implement policies based on intercepting and forcibly returning vulnerable people to detention in Libya, while also continuing to deliberately obstruct life-saving search and rescue vessels which are desperately needed in the Central Mediterranean,” said Sam Turner, MSF Head of Mission for activities in Tripoli and Mediterranean search and rescue operations.

Libya is not a safe place to return refugees and migrants. The levels of violence and exploitation that they are exposed to while in the country are well documented. “People are being returned to the country they try to flee. They are desperate. They need to be assisted and protected, not sent back into a cycle of detention,” said Julien Raickman, MSF Head of Mission for activities in Misrata, Khoms and Bani Walid.      


250 people returned to Libya this week

On Monday, 106 people disembarked in Khoms from a commercial ship. It is feared that at least six people reportedly drowned while the group was at sea.

“Upon disembarkation, several people were in need of urgent medical care. MSF intervened to provide medical assistance,” said Julien Raickman. MSF organised 10 medical referrals to a nearby hospital. A 15 year old boy died later at the hospital.

Yesterday, another group of 144 people also rescued by a merchant ship were disembarked in Misrata.


Indefinite detention in Libya

Among the 250 people who disembarked in Misrata and Khoms, there are women, some of whom are pregnant, babies and young children under the age of seven. They were transferred to detention centres in the area. Among the people recently disembarked, there are cases of malnutrition, hypothermia, and severe diarrhoea.

Some of those now in detention centres report that before trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, they had been held captive by traffickers for weeks, sometimes months, and were deprived of food and systematically abused and tortured.

Those detained have virtually no access to open air space and little access to clean water. The food available is totally inadequate to meet the nutritional needs of people with serious medical conditions, children and pregnant women. In one detention centre in the capital, MSF medical teams have observed signs of unhealthy weight loss among detainees due to an insufficient food supply. Furthermore, nearly all of the detention centres are poorly insulated against the winter weather, resulting in increased illnesses associated with prolonged cold weather exposure.


Clashes in Tripoli put lives in danger

Meanwhile, recent fighting in southern Tripoli has left 14 dead and 58 wounded according to WHO representatives in Libya. Civilians have at times been caught in the conflict zone, and it has impacted the conditions for detained men, women, and children. Last week, clashes occurred near the Qasr Bin Gashir detention centre where some 228 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers are being arbitrarily held.

Power to the centre’s borehole pump was lost and detainees were left without access to clean water until MSF was able to deliver an emergency provision of water. MSF medical teams have visited the centre twice over the past 48 hours to conduct consultations and provide medication for tuberculosis patients.

Libya should not be considered a place of safety. More must be done to help people trapped in detention centres to find a safe and dignified way out.

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