Migrants and refugees in detention centres: the humanitarian consequences of Libya’s governance breakdown

September 26, 2016
Sherine El Taraboulsi
Refugees and migrants in a detention centre in Libya.

Migrants and refugees rescued off the coast of Libya are not escaping death; instead, many of them are suffering a slow death in Libya’s 18 detention centres. These centres, managed by the Interior Ministry Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), are currently holding about 3,500 people from all over Africa, including neighbouring countries like Egypt and Tunisia (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Detainees are held for long periods without trial and without access to their families. They suffer from disease, malnutrition and physical and sexual violence. By pushing migrants and refugees away from Europe and placing deterrence at the centre of refugee policy, European governments are indirectly contributing to what is both a humanitarian and a human rights crisis (Hargrave & Pantuliano, 2016). Based on interviews with humanitarian workers in Libya and human rights activists, this article calls for immediate, concerted action. The situation in Libya can be reversed if enough international pressure is brought to bear.

Detention centres and the unravelling of Libya

While atrocious conditions have long been a feature of Libyan prisons and detention centres, the situation in detention centres is also a consequence of the larger breakdown of Libya’s institutions and rule of law. Since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in 2011, Libya has been locked in turmoil and conflict as its social fabric has unravelled and its state institutions have collapsed. Three governments exist side by side: the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, the new General National Congress (GNC) and the Government of National Accord (GNA). Brokered through the UN in December 2015, the GNA is the only internationally recognised governing body in Libya, but it has struggled to unify the Libyan people beyond political, tribal and regional differences, has no support on the ground and has been described as a ‘Frankenstein type creation with zero legitimacy’ (Galustian, 2016).

A study by the United States Institute of Peace on Libya’s detention centres (2016) paints a grim picture. The assessment team visited facilities in various regions of Libya, interviewing prison staff, government officials and human rights activists. They found directors struggling with ‘scant resources, dilapidated facilities, and multiple security threats’; staff were unpaid and chains of command unclear. The Judicial Police, which has been tasked by the Ministry of Justice to run Libya’s prisons and detention centres, ‘operates in survival mode, with fresh challenges emerging every day and the limited progress toward reform achieved thus far unravelling fast’ (Mangan and Murray, 2016). The turmoil following the 2011 revolution has created a ‘splintered system struggling to cope with structural, security and budgetary challenges’ (ibid.).

The Deputy Director of Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa, Magdalena Mughrabi, confirms the chaos and emphatically rejects any collaboration between the European Union (EU) and Libya, including the provision of funds, that does not take into account this reality. Mughrabi says: ‘Of course the Libyan coastguard’s search and rescue capabilities have to improve to save lives at sea, but the grim reality at the moment is that the Libyan coastguard is intercepting and returning thousands of people to detention centres where they suffer torture and other abuses’ (Amnesty International, 2016). Any cooperation with the DCIM in the absence of safeguards against such violations would only make matters worse.

Refugees and migrants in a detention centre in Libya.
Refugees and migrants in a detention centre in Libya. Copyright © 2016 Overseas Development Institute. All rights reserved.

The situation in detention centres

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have pointed to violations against detainees in Libya’s detention centres. The centres are not equipped to handle the current number of detainees; detainees are held arbitrarily for prolonged periods without any access to the outside world, and their number keeps increasing because few are released. In addition to health concerns stemming from overcrowded conditions, including lice and fleas and high risks of spreading infection, malnutrition is a serious threat. A doctor who had access to detention centres in Tripoli described how, in one centre, detainees survived on 600–800 calories per day (against a recommended daily intake of 2,400–2,800 calories a day for men and 1,800–2,000 for women). DCIM ascribes the shortage of food to the ending of a contract with a private company to transport and distribute food. Finally, there is virulent racism against detainees from Sub-Saharan Africa among guards at the centres because of the association between black Africans and Gaddafi’s regime (many fought on his side in the 2011 civil war). Some guards are taking the opportunity to exact revenge. Religion and language are also key factors in determining how refugees are treated in custody. Nigerians are less fortunate than people from Niger, for example, because Nigerians are Muslim and some speak Arabic.

Addressing needs: a rights-based humanitarian response

In the absence of a political settlement in Libya, a number of swift steps need to be taken to address the crisis unfolding in the country’s detention centres. The crisis is both a humanitarian one and a human rights one. A two-pronged approach is thus needed, which includes addressing the root causes of human rights violations as well as their humanitarian manifestations. Quick practical steps include exerting immediate pressure on the DCIM to renew its contract with private food companies in Libya and ensure that food is distributed to detention centres, and that detainees are provided with sufficient food while in custody. More international presence is needed in Libya – UN and other international organisations are operating there via local staff – to guarantee that violations are reported and made known to the public. Many of the violations taking place in Libya today are unknown to the wider world.

On another front, EU member states preoccupied with keeping migrants and refugees away must take steps to improve conditions in the countries to which they are being made to return. This may be possible through conditional investment in infrastructure. One key sector for investment is Libya’s weak and drastically eroded health system. Another priority is improving the quality of detention centres. EU states should demand that the Libyan authorities – fragmented though they are – are accountable for the funds they receive, and that their financial contributions are not used to support the building of more detention centres. Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL), an NGO established as a response to the 2011 revolution, has expressed concern about attempts to stem the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers entering Europe by providing support for migrant detention centres (LFJL, 2016). LFJL has called on the international community to fund efforts to restore the rule of law and accountability in Libya and strengthen the rights of migrants in detention, through supporting human rights initiatives, strategic litigation and legal training.

Sherine N. El Taraboulsi is a Research Fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).


Amnesty International UK (2016) ‘Refugees Shot at by Libyan Coastguard Before Being Detained in “Shocking” Conditions Back in Libya‘.

Hargrave, Karen and Sara Pantuliano, with Ahmed Idris (2016) ‘Closing Borders: The Ripple Effects of Australian and European Refugee Policy. Case Studies from Indonesia, Kenya and Jordan‘. HPG Working Paper. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Human Rights Watch (2016) ‘Europe’s Plan Endangers Foreigners in Libya‘.

Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) (2016). ‘LFJL calls on the European Council to protect the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers embarking from Libya‘.

Mangan, Fiona and Rebecca Murray (2016) ‘Prisons and Detention in Libya’. Peaceworks. Washington DC: USIP.


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