By Amnesty International researchers
Winter had arrived in Libya and at one of the country’s largest immigration detention centres, its crippling effects were clear. Migrants and refugees held at the centre near Gharyan, some 80km south of Tripoli were in desperate need of clothes, blankets and mattresses.
The centre, which is run by the 9th Brigade, a militia nominally under the Ministry of Defence, had no ambulance, functioning sewage system or clean drinking water. The commander in charge said that when he complained to the Prime Minister’s office about the shortages, he was told that it was not a priority. An apparent dispute with the Ministry of Interior has been preventing its handover to state authority.
Held in overcrowded, dire conditions
Located in a remote area at the foot of the Nafusa Mountains, the detention centre comprises some 20 metal hangars which can hold up to 3,000 detainees. When we visited in November, there were some 1,250 migrants detained there, from countries such as Chad, Niger, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Gambia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Togo. Regardless of whether they came to Libya looking for jobs or fleeing conflict and persecution, in detention, economic migrants and refugees face the same treatment and feeling of exhaustion.
Inside, it was freezing cold. Poorly insulated, these hangars were not designed to accommodate people for prolonged periods and offer little sanctuary from Libya’s extreme fluctuations in temperature.
Detainees held at the centre are never allowed outside. The only access they have to sunlight and fresh air is through the metal bars on the door.
Many told us their shoes were confiscated by guards upon arrival and burnt to prevent them from escaping. Those who try to escape are beaten with metal bars and plastic tubes, and forced to roll over in dirty water while guards kick them with their boots.
Others said that guards would shoot at the ceiling inside the hangars to intimidate them, and in some cases, shot directly at them. Obiezi, a Nigerian migrant aged 24, showed us a bullet wound in his hip. He said with resignation, “If an African dies here, it is normal. No one cares”.
Others alleged that they are punished whenever they ask for medical care. Mohammad, another Nigerian migrant, recounted his experience:
“Around two months ago, I was shivering with cold. My hands were stiff and I could not move. My friends started to make noise so that guards would notice. They finally arrived and took me to hospital. After I saw the doctor, guards took me to an office and beat me all over my body concentrating on my lap. They beat me with iron bars; they hit me on my feet and my lap with a hose.”
Non-Muslims at the centre appeared particularly vulnerable to abuse. A Christian from Eritrea said he was attacked by guards and threatened at gunpoint when they saw him praying in his hangar. Christian migrants from Nigeria reported that guards throw stones at them whenever they see them pray.
We identified about 20 unaccompanied children from Somalia and Eritrea –some as young as 12 years old – detained there alongside adult men.
At Soroman immigration detention centre, run by the Ministry of Interior, women detainees also face abuse. During a visit there last September female refugees and migrants said they had been strip-searched by male officers.
A Nigerian woman, who was four months pregnant at the time, described how guards attacked her after accusing her of using a phone:
“One guard started searching me, and removed my shirt. He removed my pants as well as my bra… Then, he took a plastic pipe, placed in between my legs and started shaking it against my private parts to check if I was hiding a phone.”
Afterwards, she was beaten with a water pipe, made to stand on one leg and flogged on her foot when she got tired and lowered her leg.
A Chadian girl, aged 16, also said she was strip searched upon arrival to the detention centre:
“Guards place their hands on parts that a man should not touch. We shouldn’t have male guards… They forced me to take off my bra.”
Many routes to detention
Some of the migrants and refugees detained at more than 20 centres across Libya have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard at sea as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean; others were arrested arbitrarily by various state-affiliated militias which formed during the 2011 armed conflict.
Although outside of direct state control, the apparent lack of oversight has not stopped Libyan security agencies co-operating with the 9th Brigade, meaning that migrants and refugees continue to be brought to the facility on a regular basis.
Some migrants and refugees said they were placed in detention by employers who refused to pay their wage at the end of a completed job.
Many told us that, in Libya, having valid documentation counts for little and does not prevent arbitrary arrests. Tigani, a Togolese migrant in Tripoli, said that police had burst into his house there over a year ago. When he showed them his passport containing a valid visa, they tore it to shreds and arrested him anyway.
Once behind bars, foreign nationals found to be in Libya irregularly are never brought before a judge, and can wait for months before being deported. Those whose countries do not have consular missions in Libya, or refugees who cannot return home for real risk of persecution can be held indefinitely. With no alternative solutions, they are transferred from one immigration detention centre to another across the country.
We wondered what possessed the commander from the 9th Brigade to choose his job. He claimed he was not receiving a salary from the state. When we asked him, he replied – without hesitation – that it is his national duty and responsibility to protect Libyan women from crime and witchcraft – which sub-Saharan African migrants often get accused of.
It’s perhaps this level of open xenophobia and lawlessness that we found most disturbing.
On our way back to Tripoli, we felt exhausted. We had heard too many similar stories, and expect to hear them again when we return to Libya. NGOs and donor countries might be able to do more to improve conditions at Gharyan and other immigration detention centres. Through the assistance of humanitarian organizations perhaps some refugees might end up eventually securing their release. Others will bribe their way out. Maybe one day the facility will be handed over to state authorities.
But foreign nationals will continue to be arbitrarily arrested, detained and abused in Libya as long as the authorities fail to take concrete action to end such practices. They must tackle xenophobia, put in place adequate protection measures and a coherent policy to protect the rights of migrants and refugees, and regularize their status.
Without an effective asylum system and adequate legislation, refugees in Libya will continue to face indefinite detention in appalling conditions.
Libya’s wake-up call on torture and deaths in detention (Blog, 2 October 2013)
Migrants rescued at sea after fleeing Libya must be allowed to disembark in Malta (News story, 6 August 2013)
Libya: Deaths of detainees amid widespread torture (News story, 26 January 2012)
New Libya ’stained’ by detainee abuse (News story/report, 13 October 2011)