Scapegoats of Fear: Rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Abused in Libya

June 19, 2013

Scapegoats of Fear: Rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Abused in Libya

The country's border crossing with Egypt at Salloum-Musaid was closed on 22 January to all foreign nationals with the exception of Egyptians holding a visa. The border closure affected mainly Syrian refugees who had previously been able to enter Libya by land provided they had a valid passport. Access into Libya for Syrians had been gradually restricted since the September 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, following which single Syrian men without a visa were barred from entering Libya. Local media speculated that the Ministry of Interior's January 2013 decision was motivated by fears that Syrian and Iranian nationals were spreading Shi'a political ideology in Libya, a fear widely held in the country. Libyan officials dismissed these allegations. UNHCR has to date registered some 8,100 Syrian refugees in Libya, but estimates the overall Syrian population in the country at over 100,000.

Amnesty International visited seven migrant "holding centres" as called by the Libyan authorities - in Benghazi, al-Zawiya, Gharyan, Sabha, Misrata and Tripoli where foreign nationals were held unlawfully in prison-like conditions indefinitely for "migration-related offences" pending deportation. At the time of Amnesty International's visit, approximately 5,000 migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers were held in 17 such centres run by the Ministry of Interior, according to official statistics. An unknown number of detainees were also being held by militias that were formed during and after the 2011 armed conflict and continue to operate without state oversight. The number of detainees fluctuates as the cycles of arrests and deportations continue. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 foreign nationals are being detained at any given time. Approximately 2,000 people are deported every month by land or by plane.

In addition to the DCIM, militias and in some cases ordinary citizens motivated by xenophobia and misguided fears about diseases, detain foreign nationals on an almost daily basis - driven by what they believe is their "national duty". Arrests can take place anywhere at any time, although foreign nationals are most often picked up from their homes, at checkpoints and on the street. After a relatively short period, foreign nationals are handed over to larger "holding centres" for the purpose of their deportation. In some cases, they are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, as well as exploitation at all stages of this process, by both state and non-state actors.

Between May 2012 and the end of April 2013, the DCIM deported close to 25,000 foreign nationals primarily on the grounds that they were in Libya "irregularly". Among them were 10,402 Egyptians, 6,404 Niger nationals, 1,912 Chadians and 111 Malians, the latter despite clear guidance from UNHCR as of May 2012 that states "suspend forcible returns of nationals or habitual residents of Mali to the country until the security and human rights situation has stabilized". In a number of facilities, detainees were held for prolonged periods as detaining authorities required that they pay for their own deportation, which can cost up to 800 dinars (approximately US$635) for those deported by air. At a detention facility in Benghazi, Amnesty International met two Bangladeshis who had already been detained for over six months due to their inability to pay such fees.

Conditions observed in most "holding centres" visited by Amnesty International delegates fell short of international standards, and at times amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Foreign nationals were held in overcrowded cells, often without regular access to fresh air; many suffered from irregular access to washing and sanitary facilities and insufficient access to drinking water, hygiene products and other basic necessities. Poor hygiene standards and detention conditions have led to the spread of skin diseases and other medical problems, which have been exacerbated by insufficient treatment, and at times the denial of treatment altogether.