Last Thursday, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar declared his goal to conquer the Libyan capital of Tripoli, and began his advance shortly thereafter. At this time, the militia forces has reached just outside the city where several detention centers dot the landscape. But these are not prisons for tried and charged criminals. Instead, these are centers holding hundreds — in some cases thousands — of asylum seekers.
In 2017, Italy, backed by the EU, signed a deal with Libya to stem migration by funding the Libyan coast guard to intercept refugees trying to cross the sea and hold them indefinitely in makeshift prisons. Since this deal, asylum seekers from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia have become some of the world’s most severe victims of abuse, extortion, slavery and torture at the hands of the Libyan forces. Although the UN has carried out a number of successful evacuations, approximately 5,700 refugees still populate these prisons and these numbers continue to grow. Asylum seekers continue trying to traverse Libya and cross the Mediterranean, not because they are unaware of the dangers, but because their fates have been sealed back home due to war, political persecution, genocide and religious oppression. Their lives in their home countries have been scorched, and there is no way for them to return safely.
Past clashes between the Libyan authorities and rebel militias have cut asylum seekers off from all forms of aid, and guards were left unable to reach the detention centers. This resulted in massive food and water shortages and centers would often lose electricity for days at a time. Despite these life threatening conditions, the surrounding fighting made it impossible for them to flee. Since there is no government to protect them, they were left vulnerable to militias who frequently raided the centers to find slave laborers and human shields. Now, as Field Marshal Haftar’s forces advance, history is repeating itself once more. And again, the world has abandoned these men, women and children to die.
This is not the first time myself and other activists, journalists and aid workers have received a wave of desperate of text messages from refugees trapped inside Libya. For months a network of dedicated allies have been collecting testimonies of a life of torture, deprivation of food and water, forced labor, and utter despair. Just this weekend, I was sent a text message that a one-month-old infant from the Darfur region of Sudan had passed away over a day earlier. He had fallen ill and the prison guard ignored the mother’s plea for help when the child stopped breathing. Because of the fighting outside there was no way to bury the body. In January during the last bout of militia fighting, refugees were cut off from food, water and electricity for days and distributed protest photos (including the one above) across social media trying to get someone from the outside to see them and to listen. Over the past few months journalists have struggled to get media outlets to publish the personal testimonies from these detainees but because it is not a “hot topic” there’s little will to publish the words of an innocent young man who fled genocide in Darfur to reach Libya, only to spend more than two years being imprisoned and tortured at the hands of smugglers and militias.
But for years their cries have fallen on deaf ears, and as a result the status quo has transitioned from human rights abuses to potential war crimes. Detainees are now stating that the militias have entered the detention centers and, as Sally Hayden reports in the Irish Times, have begun dressing refugees in old military uniforms. My contacts in Qaser Bin Ghashir prison confirm that they are terrified of being forced to fight alongside the militia. Whether that fear materializes or if they continue to be used as slave labor or human shields, this has crossed a new line. The 1949 Geneva Convention outlines that wearing an enemy uniform marks someone as a “belligerent actor” which marks them as a viable target; meaning, if refugees are forced out into the open air dressed as militia fighters they can be targeted and killed by the opposing side without recourse.
At this time, Qaser Bin Ghashir prison has lost electricity and detainees have run out of food and running water. They report that they can still hear the sounds of the militias fighting around them, making it unsafe to attempt to escape. The clock has begun to tick for the survival of these men, women and children.
Each one of us has the power to amplify this message to try and reach a critical mass of public opinion. Perhaps if there were an outcry from readers across the Western world; a twitter storm, a petition with tens of thousands of signatures, or if people called their elected leaders and demanded they intervene, then there may be a chance to pressure the Libyan military to carry out evacuations to relocate the centers to safer areas outside the city, or provide them with a channel to legally apply for asylum in a safe country.
For the time being, refugees in these detention centers have resigned themselves to an uncertain fate. They have come to terms with the stark fact that the international community is not going to come to their rescue. As one man put it, “this is not the first [or] second time, it is a series of conflicts that we are often victims of. We are held in [hunger] and can not do anything, no help from anyone, no one can reach us now.”