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Arbitrary detention in Libya must end as asylum seeker dies in detention centre fire

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  • A fire broke out in a detention centre in western Libya, resulting in the death of a young Eritrean man.
  • The detention centre in Zintan is overcrowded, with up to 500 people crammed into a small building, with migrants living in dire conditions.
  • MSF is calling for the end of arbitrary detention of migrants in Libya, and to immediately evacuate and resettle people in countries of safety.

Yefren, Libya - During the night of 29 February, a fire broke out in Dhar El-Jebel detention centre, in Zintan, where over 500 refugees and migrants are arbitrarily detained south of Tripoli in the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya. A 26-year-old Eritrean man tragically lost his life as he got caught up in the flames while sleeping in one of the overcrowded cells of the detention centre.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff, who have been providing humanitarian assistance since May 2019 to people stranded in the remote Zintan detention centre, are supporting the survivors with psychological care and distribution of basic necessities to replace items lost in the fire. The fire destroyed a building where 50 people were crammed together, and partially damaged a second one. A similar incident linked with dire living conditions already occurred in December, with no casualties.

Dhar el Jebel, Libya, March 2020
The aftermath of a fire that broke out in Dhar El-Jebel detention centre. Libya, March 2020.
They tell us they feel helpless and isolated after months and often years stranded in detention. Their only hope is to see their asylum requests processed – they must get out. Christine Nivet, MSF project coordinator.

“Our psychologist reports a very high level of desperation. People are in shock, numb by the repeated trauma with no end in sight,” said Christine Nivet, MSF project coordinator. “The fire and the resulting tragic death of a young man are adding up to a cycle of dreadful abuse and traumatic events that our patients have faced in Libya.”

“They tell us they feel helpless and isolated after months and often years stranded in detention,” Nivet said. “Their only hope is to see their asylum requests processed – they must get out.”

People who have escaped danger, embarked on dangerous journeys

Most people currently arbitrarily detained in Dhar El-Jebel detention centre are Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. They fled their home countries to seek safety and asylum and cannot return. They have been through horrific experiences during their perilous journey, especially in Libya.

Some were kidnapped by human traffickers who tortured them to extort money from them and their relatives. Others attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach safety in Europe and were brought back by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard and taken to detention centres, mainly in Tripoli. After fighting between militias broke out in the capital in August 2018, many of them were moved from detention centres in Tripoli to facilities in the Nafusa Mountains, further from the frontline but out of sight, in desperate conditions and with virtually no assistance.

MSF staff who first visited Dhar El-Jebel detention centre in May 2019 found a catastrophic medical situation. As a tuberculosis outbreak had been raging for months, at least 22 migrants and refugees died from tuberculosis and other diseases between September 2018 and May 2019 in the area.

At least 2,000 migrants and refugees in Libya are still indefinitely locked up without any due legal process in squalid detention centres, where they remain exposed to harmful conditions and abuses.  The mechanism for evacuating refugees from Libya is currently extremely limited, mostly due to the overall lack of places provided by safe countries.

Dhar el Jebel, Libya, March 2020

Stuck in detention while Europe continues to keep migrants at bay

Despite the severe escalation of the conflict in Libya, the European Union support to the Libyan coast guard continues unabated in order to intercept people fleeing by sea and return them to a country at war where they face well-known and life-threatening violence.

“People in search of safety find themselves increasingly stuck in Libya. Some of our patients in Dhar El-Jebel detention centre have been detained for three years,” said Nivet. “What we can do as medics to alleviate their suffering is very limited as our patients remain in the same protracted harmful situation, with their international protection needs unanswered. Evacuations and resettlements of refugees and asylum seekers from Libya must be immediately scaled up.”

MSF calls for the end of arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees in Libya. Protection mechanisms including shelters for the most vulnerable where they can be assured of security and assistance must be set up as a matter of urgency, while their evacuation can be organised. This can only work if Europe stops sending back those who escape by sea and if safe countries provide more places to welcome survivors.

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Project Update 31 July 2020