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Libya: Thousands of migrants imprisoned after five days of mass detentions

Médecins Sans Frontières teams witness deteriorating living conditions in overcrowded detention centres with hundreds held in unsanitary cells
Cárceles de Libia

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Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams providing medical care in three detention centres in Tripoli, Libya, say the number of migrants and refugees held in the centres has increased dramatically - by as much as three times - in the past five days. The organisation warns that this increase is a direct result of five days of random mass arrests of migrants and refugees, including women and children, carried out in the city since 1 October.

In recent days, government security forces have rounded up at least 5,000 migrants and refugees across Tripoli. In raids and raids on their homes, many of those captured were reportedly subjected to severe physical violence, including sexual violence. One young migrant was killed and at least five others suffered gunshot wounds, according to the UN.

"We are seeing security forces taking extreme measures to arbitrarily detain more vulnerable people in inhumane conditions in severely overcrowded facilities," says Ellen van der Velden, MSF's operations manager for Libya. "Entire families of migrants and refugees living in Tripoli have been rounded up, handcuffed and transferred to various detention centres. In the process, people have been injured and one has even died, families have been split up and their houses have been reduced to rubble," she adds.

Due to the insecurity caused by the raids, MSF teams have not been able to carry out weekly mobile clinics in the city to treat vulnerable migrants and refugees in need of medical care. The raids have also affected people's ability to move freely around the city and seek medical care, as those who have avoided detention are afraid to go out on the streets.

"Armed and masked security guards raided the house where I lived with three other people," says Abdo [not his real name]. "They tied our hands behind our backs and dragged us out of the house. We begged them to give us time to collect our belongings and important documents, but they didn't listen to us. They beat us. Some were beaten on their legs and suffered fractures. I was hit on the head with the butt of a gun and suffered serious injuries. [Later] the doctor had to sew up the wound and cover it with ten different dressings. The masked men put us all in vehicles and took us to Ghout Sha'al detention centre. I was there for four days and had a very difficult time, watching defenceless people being beaten with guns. On the fourth day, I managed to escape. Now I am free. I am free," he says.

Detainees have been taken to state detention centres and held in unsanitary and severely overcrowded cells, with little drinking water and food and very limited access to toilets. Following the violence used in the detentions, many are likely to be in need of urgent medical attention, says MSF.

Over the past two days, MSF teams have managed to visit two detention centres in the capital where people arrested in the recent raids are being held: Shara Zawiya and Al-Mabani (also known as Ghout Sha'al).

At the Shara Zawiya detention centre, which normally holds between 200 and 250 people, an MSF team saw more than 550 women and children crammed into cells, including pregnant women and newborn babies. Some 120 people shared a single toilet, while buckets filled with urine lined up near the cell doors. When the food was distributed, there was an uproar as women detainees protested the conditions in which they were held.

At the Shara Zawiya detention centre, which normally holds between 200 and 250 people, an MSF team saw more than 550 women and children crammed into cells, including pregnant women and newborn babies. Some 120 people shared a single toilet.

At Al-Mabani detention centre, MSF teams saw hangars and cells so overcrowded that the men inside were forced to stand. Outside the cells, hundreds of women and children were held in the open, without shade or shelter. An MSF team spoke to men who said they had not eaten for three days, while several women stated that all they had received was a piece of bread and a triangle of cheese once a day. The MSF team found several men unconscious and in need of urgent medical attention.

At Al-Mabani detention centre, MSF teams saw hangars and cells so overcrowded that the men inside were forced to stand. Outside the cells, hundreds of women and children were held in the open, without shade or shelter. The MSF team found several unconscious men in need of urgent medical attention.

During their visit to Al-Mabani, the MSF team witnessed a group of detained migrants and refugees trying to escape. They were met with extreme violence: our team heard two rounds of heavy gunfire at very close range and witnessed the indiscriminate beating of a group of men, who were subsequently forced into vehicles and driven to an unknown destination.

In these tense conditions and with very limited time for visits, MSF teams treated 161 patients, including three who were treated for violence-related injuries. They also facilitated the transfer of 21 patients in need of specialised medical care to MSF-supported clinics in Tripoli.

MSF resumed its medical activities in Shara Zawiya, Al-Mabani and Abu Salim detention centres in Tripoli a few days ago after almost three months of suspension due to repeated incidents of violence against migrants and refugees held in these facilities. The resumption of MSF's work followed an agreement with the authorities running these centres whereby MSF received assurances that certain basic conditions would be met. Following this week's visits, MSF believes it is clear that these conditions have been breached.

"Instead of increasing the number of people held in detention centres, arbitrary detentions must stop, and these dangerous and uninhabitable facilities must be closed," said Van der Velden. "More than ever, migrants and refugees are trapped in Libya where they live in danger and where they have few options to flee as humanitarian flights have been unjustifiably suspended for the second time this year," she said.

MSF calls on the Libyan authorities to end mass arrests of vulnerable migrants and refugees, and to release all people held illegally in detention centres. MSF also urges the authorities, with the support of relevant organisations, to identify safe and dignified alternatives to detention and to allow the immediate resumption of humanitarian evacuation and resettlement flights out of Libya.