• Sheet of paper Report

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

June 20, 2013

Nearly a year after the first elections in post-Gaddafi Libya, the human rights of tens of thousands of foreign nationals, including asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, continue to be routinely violated.

In a context of political instability and lawlessness, foreign nationals, mainly from sub- Saharan Africa, are at constant risk of exploitation, arrest and indefinite detention pending deportation. Those without "proper documentation" are particularly vulnerable as Libyan legislation criminalizes entering, staying in or leaving Libya irregularly. When Amnesty International delegates were in Libya in April and May 2013, approximately 1,700 detained asylum-seekers were held indefinitely in poorly resourced "holding centres". The situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in Libya is particularly precarious as Libya widely resorts to their detention in breach of international law and the country still lacks an asylum system and national asylum legislation.

Libya continues to be heavily reliant on foreign workers, especially in the agriculture and construction sectors as well as the services industry. Despite this, the authorities have failed to develop a coherent migration policy to protect the rights of these workers and regularize their status. Such failures mean that abuses against migrant workers thrive with impunity.

Following the mass exodus of foreign nationals from Libya during the armed conflict in 2011, migration flows into Libya appear to have resumed. Once again, the country is a magnet destination for people, particularly sub-Saharan Africans and North African and Middle Eastern nationals, who are looking for economic opportunities or for international protection as they flee persecution, violence and armed conflicts in the region and beyond.

Further, many thousands of individuals arrive in Libya every year in the hope of continuing their journey to European shores. At the end of April 2013, the Libyan Coast Guard noted an increase since the beginning of the year in the number of people leaving by boat to Europe, stating that some 650 people had been intercepted at sea in the beginning of May and handed over to detention centres overseen by Libya's Department of Combating Irregular Migration (DCIM), which is under the Ministry of Interior. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, 24 boats carrying some 2,500 people from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan had departed from the Libyan coast towards Europe since the beginning of March. Four of the boats were turned back by the Libyan Coast Guard as they embarked on the journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

At the same time, the Libyan authorities seem to have stepped up their efforts to combat "irregular migration". By the end of 2012, the General National Congress (GNC), the first elected body of Libya issued a decision to seal the country's borders with Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan and declared the country's southern regions as closed military areas subject to "special measures". The decision was mainly driven by security considerations and had the stated aim of reducing arms and human trafficking. However, it also empowered the military commander in the south to arrest "wanted persons" and deport "infiltrators" across the border.

In January 2013, the Ministry of Interior announced the introduction of visas for all foreigners wishing to enter the country. A month later, the Libyan authorities introduced new visa rules requiring Egyptians to apply ahead of time. The new regulation affected, among others, tens of thousands of Egyptian migrant workers and residents of the border town of Salloum, who initiated sit-ins at the border in protest. Around the same time, the Ministry of Labour stated that it would take tough measures against any foreign national found to be in Libya "irregularly", and announced the halting of all procedures related to the entry of foreign workers to Libya until the labour market was regulated.

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.

Amnesty International also found evidence that the Libyan authorities have started deporting foreign nationals diagnosed with infections such as hepatitis B and C or HIV. Compulsory medical tests, which were developed under al-Gaddafi's rule as a prerequisite for foreign nationals applying for a work and residency permits in Libya, were reintroduced at the beginning of 2013.

During and immediately after the 2011 armed conflict, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa were targeted for their perceived association with the former government after rumours had spread that al-Gaddafi's forces had used African mercenaries. Amnesty International research suggests that, at present, abuses against foreign nationals appear to be mainly motivated by misguided fears of diseases and xenophobia.

Against this backdrop, the European Union (EU) established a civilian technical mission in May 2013 aimed at building the capacity of the Libyan authorities to enhance "the security of Libya's land, sea and air borders". In the long term, the mission, which is known as the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), aims to support the Libyan authorities in developing a broader "integrated border management" strategy. It is still unclear to what extent EUBAM will be involved in assisting the Libyan authorities in developing a policy towards controlling "irregular migration", but it is likely to provide training and advice to the various agencies involved in border control, including on the "management of migration flows".

In a recently published report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants criticized the EU for the "externalization of border control" by encouraging, financing and promoting detention of "irregular migrants" in non-EU border countries "as a means of ensuring that irregular migrants in third countries are stopped prior to entering the European Union." As part of the European Neighbourhood Policy package for Libya, the EU is funding a project worth 10 million euros that aims, among other things, to enhance "migration management" and assist "vulnerable populations" in detention centres. The first health clinic in a "holding centre" was recently opened by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with EU funding. Additionally, the Italian Ministry of Interior is funding Sahara-Med, another IOM project designed to "prevent, detect and manage irregular migration flows". The Italian Ministry of Interior is intending to finance the refurbishment of a number of detention centres for migrants and provide them with ambulances.

These projects pursue immigration control imperatives set by the EU and appear to disregard the human rights obligations of both Libya and the EU and its member states, including under refugee law and standards. Detention solely for the purposes of immigration control is only lawful when in strict compliance with relevant international human rights law and standards.

In 2008, the EU adopted its own directive15 outlining standards and procedures for the return of "irregular third-country nationals" from member states, whereby detention is only allowed when "there is a risk of absconding" or the individual "avoids or hampers the preparation of return". The directive stipulates that detention should be applied for "as short a period as possible" and "shall be executed with due diligence". These standards, which were developed for internal application, do not appear to inform or be consistent with the EU's external policies and dialogue with third countries.

In sharp contrast with the EU's external policies, in 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the "situation of migrants in Libya". It called, among other things, on the EU and its member states to "commit to enter into further agreements on migration control with Libya only after Libya demonstrates that it respects and protects the human rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants and puts in place satisfactory systems for assessing and recognising claims for international protection." The resolution also calls on the European Union to "ensure adequate monitoring mechanisms are in place to ensure that human rights are observed in practice". Sadly, EU assistance to the Libyan authorities does not appear to be driven by principles enshrined in the Returns directive and calls included in the European Parliament's resolution, and instead contributes to perpetuating human rights abuses.

This briefing is based on the findings of a visit by Amnesty International delegates to Libya in April and May 2013, as well as other research conducted before and since. In addition to visiting seven migrant "holding centres" in Benghazi, al-Zawiya, Gharyan, Sabha, Misrata and Tripoli as well as the Libyan Red Crescent Camp in Benghazi, and speaking to detainees and officials at these facilities, Amnesty International interviewed government officials from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice, Libyan and international NGOs, and United Nations agencies. In total, Amnesty International conducted 69 group and individual interviews with foreign nationals at these facilities.

Names and other identifying details of individuals whose cases are featured in this briefing, as well as the names and exact locations of some "holding centres", militias or security agencies have been withheld to protect people from further abuse and reprisals, or to respect their wishes.