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05 October 2021 – Libya

Migrants Waiting at a Detention Centre in Zawiyah on 18 April 2017 (Mahmud Turkia, AFP,
Migrants Waiting at a Detention Centre in Zawiyah on 18 April 2017 (Mahmud Turkia, AFP, "UN Probe Reveals Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes in Libya," France 24, 4 October 2021,

The UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission to Libya has found that over the past five years, numerous official agencies and non-state actors have committed such extreme levels of violence and human rights abuses that there are reasonable grounds for concluding that war crimes have been committed as well as crimes against humanity.

The mission, which based its findings on a review of hundreds of documents and interviews with more than 150 people, highlighted in particular the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in the country and the conditions of detention and imprisonment. “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 one of the mission’s authors. “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.” Another author said that “migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are subjected to a litany of abuses at sea, in detention centres and at the hands of traffickers.”

The mission also emphasised the role of the Libyan Coast Guard in committing abuses of migrants and asylum seekers, despite the fact that they have been financed and trained by the European Union. The mission estimates that some 87,000 migrants have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard since 2016, “including about 7,000 ‘currently’ in centers run by the Department for Combating Illegal Migration. Such roundups have continued in recent days: an unprecedented crackdown in Libya has led to the detention of more than 5,000 people, including hundreds of children and women, and violence in associated raids has left at least one migrant dead, according to a U.N. tally” (AP).

Additional sources have recently confirmed that thousands of migrants and refugees remain detained in Libya’s detention centres today, many of which are operated by militias outside any form of official control or oversight. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), as of 25 July 2021, there were nearly 600,000 migrants in the country as of mid-2021, including 3,860 in detention centres. Between January and September 2021, 23,583 migrants attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe and were intercepted and returned to Libya, with many being sent to detention centres. Moreover, so far in 2021, 1,311 migrants were voluntarily returned to their home countries and 212 refugees were resettled to Sweden, Norway and Canada.

OCHA and IOM report that there are 12 detention centres in the country (seven in the west, four in the east, and one in the south). However, access by humanitarian organisations to migrants and refugees continues to be difficult. For fear of being detained, migrants and refugees often maintain a low profile, thus preventing them from seeking out assistance.

Libyan authorities have officially included refugees, asylum seekers, and third-country nationals in its national vaccination scheme. However, it is unclear whether any preventive measures against COVID-19 have been adopted in the country’s detention centres.

Some detainees have been released from detention (see 7 October 2020 and 3 April 2020 Libya update on this platform) since the onset of the pandemic, though often for unrelated reasons. For instance, the Al Sabaa detention centre was emptied in April 2020 because of the armed clashes near the detention centre (see 3 April 2020 Libya update on this platform).

On the other hand, as regards the country’s prisons, when the pandemic began, the Libyan government was quick to release prisoners. On 28 March 2020, the government released 466 prisoners, mostly on remand. A couple of weeks later, on 7 April 2020, the Ministry of Justice released 1,347 detainees and in July 2020, the Ministry of Justice announced that 582 prisoners were going to be released before the end of their prison term. Also, in June 2020, the Ministry of Justice announced the distribution of medical and preventive equipment to the country’s prisons to avoid the spread of COVID-19.