United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is currently insisting that the Libyan government ‘’must’’ immediately address the dire situation of asylum-seekers and refugees, in a humane manner, consistent with international human rights law.
Very early this October, a Human Rights Council-appointed probe said that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Libya by all parties to the conflict since 2016 including by external actors.
From arbitrary detention to torture, the recruitment of child soldiers and mass killings, the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya listed numerous grave rights violations which had impacted the country’s people and which gave them “reasonable grounds” for the war crimes allegations.
Civilians were particularly at risk during the 2019-2020 fight for the capital Tripoli, the Mission said, as well as during other violence in the country since 2016, which has been marked by attacks on hospitals, schools, migration detention centres, and communities at large.
“Airstrikes have killed dozens of families. The destruction of health-related facilities has impacted access to healthcare, and anti-personnel mines left by mercenaries in residential areas have killed and maimed civilians”, said Mission chair, Mohamed Auajjar.
The investigators – whose Fact-Finding Mission was created by the Human Rights Council in June last year – published their findings after reviewing hundreds of documents and interviewing more than 150 individuals, alongside parallel research in Libya, Tunisia and Italy.
“Arbitrary detention in secret prisons and unbearable conditions of detention are widely used by the State or militias against anyone perceived to be a threat to their interests or views,” said the Mission’s Tracy Robinson speaking to journalists in Geneva.
“Violence in Libyan prisons is committed on such a scale and with such a level of organisation that it may also amount to crimes against humanity.”
The UN-appointed independent investigators highlighted violence against migrants, refugees and other vulnerable minorities including LGBTQi individuals.
“Violations against migrants are committed on a widespread scale by State and non-State actors with a high level of organisation and with the encouragement of the State. All of this is suggestive of crimes against humanity”, said Mission member Chaloka Beyani.
Beyani also pointed to worrying reports about the continued presence of foreign fighters in the country from the Syrian conflict and private mercenaries allegedly contracted by the Russia-based Wagner Group, in the fight for the Libyan capital from 2019 to 2020, claims highlighted previously by the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries.
“Our investigations have indicated that there are foreign fighters, there are mercenaries in Libya, and they have not yet left the territory of Libya as required”, he said. Other likely violations of international law covered by the Mission included the recruitment of children to fight.
“Our report also documents the recruitment and direct participation of children in hostilities, the enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings of prominent women and continuing sexual and other forms of violence against vulnerable populations including LGBTQI persons”, said Ms. Robinson.
The Mission also verified allegations of atrocity crimes committed in the town of Tarhuna, southeast of Tripoli, between 2016 and 2020, where mass graves containing the bodies of men, women and children have been found.
According to reports, the Kaniyat militia was responsible for killing perhaps hundreds of civilians in Tarhuna, their wounds indicating that they had been shot many times while blindfolded, handcuffed and with their legs tied.
Mission chair Mohamed Auajjar noted that the recently installed Government of National Unity has created the possibility of national dialogue and unification of State institutions.
The UN has been supporting peace efforts in Libya, which descended into chaos and conflict following the overthrow of President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, resulting in the country being divided between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) based in the east.
In a statement, the Mission noted that it had identified “both Libyans and foreign actors who may bear responsibility for the violations, abuses and crimes committed in Libya since 2016”.
These names will remain on a confidential list “until the need arises for its publication or sharing with other accountability mechanisms”, the Mission continued, acknowledging the continuing work of the investigation opened in 2011 by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Libya, at the request of the UN Security Council.
“As Libyans strive to secure peace, ensuring accountability for gross human rights violations and international crimes committed in the country is more necessary than ever to deter further violations and promote long-term peace and reconciliation”, said Auajjar.
“We urge Libya to intensify its efforts to hold those responsible to account. It is also essential that the international community continues to provide support to the Libyan judicial authorities.”
However, according to UNHCR, authorities carried out raids and arbitrary arrests this month which targeted areas largely populated by refugees and asylum-seekers.
This resulted in several deaths, thousands detained, and many homeless and destitute.
“We have witnessed a sharp deterioration in the situation facing vulnerable asylum-seekers and refugees in Tripoli”, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Western and Central Mediterranean Situation said. “The Libyan authorities must come up with a proper plan that respects their rights and identifies durable solutions.”
The situation for some 3,000 people currently sheltering outside the Community Day Centre (CDC) in Tripoli, “is very precarious” UNHCR said. Many people have been affected by the raids; their homes have been demolished and they have escaped from detention after suffering terrible conditions.
Others have joined the group hoping to be evacuated, the agency added. “Many have been left homeless and lost all their belongings as a result of the security operation and are now sleeping in the cold and in a very unsafe environment.
“This is utterly unacceptable”, Cochetel stated.
UNHCR and its partners provided medical assistance and other services at the centre but suspended operations for security and safety reasons. Agency staffers are talking with representatives of the protesters outside the CDC, to explain the limited assistance it can offer, including cash and food support.
Last week, the UN human rights
In a raid by Ministry of Interior personnel on an informal settlement in Gergaresh, about 12 kilometres west of Tripoli, security forces used unnecessary and disproportionate force to detain women, children and men. At least one person died, five were injured, and more than 4,000 were detained.
UNHCR reiterated that it stands ready to support an urgent action plan that could help alleviate the suffering of asylum-seekers and refugees in Libya.
While it welcomed the authorization to restart humanitarian evacuation flights, the agency warned that it was not enough. “This is a positive development for some of the most vulnerable refugees, who have been waiting anxiously for many months to depart.
“Our teams are already working to ensure humanitarian flights can restart as soon as possible”, Cochetel said, adding, “but we also need to be realistic: resettlement or evacuation flights will only benefit a limited number of people.”
Though more than 1,000 vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers are currently prioritised for humanitarian flights and awaiting their resumption, according to UNHCR, but before now, migrants and asylum seekers in Libya have been facing increasingly heavy-handed treatment from targeted security operations, resulting in at least one death and a steep increase in detentions.
In a resent alert, OHCHR said that vulnerable people on the move in the North African nation experience “a myriad daily violations and abuses at the hands of both State and non-state actors.” These include expulsions of individuals to countries in sub-Saharan Africa without due process, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.
“On the one hand, as some parts of the Government have been saying, they are doing these raids and operations just to tackle crime”, Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for OHCHR explained. “In this case, what we are saying is if you are trying to tackle crime, try to go against the traffickers, don’t go and detain the migrants who are quite often the victims of the traffickers.”
Ms. Hurtado expressed concern at a number of major incidents in which migrants and asylum seekers had been targeted since the beginning of October. These included the first of October raid by Ministry of Interior personnel on an informal settlement in Gergaresh, which is about 12 kilometres west of Tripoli.
Women, children and men were arrested and handcuffed, including some individuals who were reportedly registered with the UN refugee agency.
Security forces used unnecessary and disproportionate force to detain them, including shooting and beating those who resisted or tried to escape, Ms. Hurtado said, noting that at least one person died, five were injured, and more than 4,000 were detained, before adding that the authorities had since acknowledged that the operation could have been handled differently.
According to OHCHR, all those arrested were taken to the al-Mabani Government-run detention centre in Tripoli and kept in extremely overcrowded cells with little access to food or water. On October 6, 500 migrants managed to escape from the Gheriyan centre and were chased by guards who opened fire using live ammunition. According to preliminary information, at least four individuals were shot dead, and many others injured.
Two days later, on October 8, another mass escape took place from the al-Mabani centre, with migrants being chased by security officers who shot at them, injuring and killing an unknown number. For Ms. Hurtado, “this series of horrific events over a period of eight days is just the latest example of the precarious, sometimes lethal, situation facing migrants and asylum seekers in Libya.”
“They are criminalized solely for their migration status, are routinely detained in abhorrent conditions, are frequently subjected to extortion and abuse, and in some cases killed”, she said.
Appeal to authorities
According to a recent report by the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, these widespread and systematic violations could amount to crimes against humanity.
The rights office is calling on the authorities to establish prompt, thorough, impartial and independent investigations into these claims.
OHCHR is also asking the Libyan authorities to release all arbitrarily detained migrants and asylum seekers, cease the raids on their settlements, halt evictions and stop criminalizing them.
The government should assist all families who are separated and urgently accommodate migrants and asylum seekers in proper and safe conditions, the Spokesperson said.
UN agencies and NGOs should also be given access to detention centres, Ms. Hurtado added as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also warned that the safety and wellbeing of at least 1,000 women and children held in detention centres in Tripoli is under threat. According to the agency, the group, which includes five unaccompanied children and at least 30 infants, is at immediate risk.
Acting UNICEF Special Representative to the country, Cristina Brugiolo, said the youngsters were being “held under devastating and inhumane conditions” and the actual number “may be much higher”, as many boys have reportedly been
Detention centres nationwide are said to be way overcapacity. Libya’s largest detention centre, Al Mabani, is currently