As deadly airstrikes prompt plans to release detainees, fears rise for those trapped in the country amid claims of serious abuses
Kosofo was hiding in the bathroom when a deadly airstrike ripped through the ceiling of the hall he was locked inside, in Tripoli’s Tajoura migrant detention centre last week.
“I saw the hell with my eyes. I saw things that I had seen during the Darfur war,” says the Sudanese man in his 20s, who has asked to go by a nickname for his own safety.
The UN says at least 53 refugees, including six children, were killed on 3 July, after airstrikes hit the detention centre in which hundreds were being held. Detainees, including Kosofo, say the death toll was much higher, based on the number of people who were inside the hall at the time.
Kosofo’s account was confirmed by other detainees in Tajoura, in eastern Tripoli. The Guardian saw Kosofo’s medical records, which showed he was brought to hospital on 3 July.
Kosofo has tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea four times since 2017. On each occasion he was caught by the Libyan coastguard, who are supported by the EU to intercept boats and return people to Libya.
In those two years he’s been imprisoned in six different detention centres. Among them was Ain Zara, in south Tripoli, where Kosofo was trapped on the frontlines last August, after fighting broke out and hundreds of detainees were abandoned.
Most recently, Kosofo was brought to Tajoura after being arrested on Tripoli’s streets a week before the airstrikes. Half of the people in his cell had been caught at sea, and the other half in the city, he says.
His story illustrates the cycle in which many refugees in Libya are caught: pay smugglers to go to sea, get caught and put in indefinite detention, bribe your way out, escape or get sold to traffickers by guards, raise money and try the sea again. It also raises questions about what will happen to the most vulnerable if the detention centres are finally closed, as the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord says it is now considering.
About 6,000 people are currently locked up in “official” detention centres across Libya, which are ostensibly run by the Department for Combating Illegal Migration, though in reality many are under the control of militias. Last week, the GNA interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, said all refugees and migrants in detention may be released for their own safety.
A catalogue of abuses in detention have been documented by the UN and human rights groups, including physical and sexual violence, forced labour, recruitment by militias, detainees being left without food, water and medical care, and allegations that refugees and migrants are being used as “human shields” in the three-month conflict. Dozens have perished due to the conditions, although no official record is kept of the numbers dying. Some Sudanese detainees in Tajoura say they’ve been there for two years.
Sam Turner, Libya head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières, says the medical charity has been calling for the detention centres to be closed for years, but hasn’t seen any substantial practical steps to move forward.
He says the idea of being released without follow-up care can be “extremely threatening” to detained refugees and migrants.
“Not only are they walking out with nothing in their pockets and nothing on their backs, they’re still afraid of the wider situation,” Turner says. “There isn’t security, there are militias belonging to all different groups. These are key concerns for a very vulnerable and highly targeted population.”
Refugees and migrants who have spent years in Libya will need support and the opportunity to be taken to a safe place, he says.
Unless interceptions at sea by the Libyan coastguard stop, Turner also doubts detention will truly end. Releasing vulnerable people into such a difficult environment without protection means they will continue to look for an escape route.
“It’s really the biggest contradiction – the EU saying the detention centres must close, [while saying] at the same time the Libyan coastguard must continue to intercept people and return them to Libya,” he says.
Since airstrikes were launched in Tripoli in April, almost four times as many people have been returned to Libya by the coastguard than have been evacuated to safe countries, according to UN figures.
Kosofo lost his parents during the war in Darfur, and is the oldest of two brothers and three sisters. He travelled to Libya in the hope of reaching Europe, where he wanted to earn money to support his siblings.
“I still have a hope and desire to try again and again until success,” he says.
Refugees are “business” in Libya, adds Kosofo, who is still in pain from the injuries to his back, neck and shoulders that he suffered when a wall fell on him as a result of last week’s airstrike. He doubts the authorities will close the detention centres.
“There is no rest in Libya,” says Kosofo. “This is not humanity.”