By Tom Pollitt

People are dying in Libya’s refugee detention centers, their stories untold.

Throughout this crisis, the UN and EU have not only shown they were incapable of finding solutions, they also have been complicit in making matters worse. In the midst of this sea of horror, the camp in Zintan stands out as the worst.

While it plays many important roles on the world stage, the UN is often criticized for its ineffectiveness in averting the worst humanitarian disasters.

From Rwanda to Bosnia to Darfur the organization has often done too little, too late.

The latest chapter in the sorry tale of UN failures is the inability of the UNHCR to protect the rights of refugees held in Libya’s horrific detention centers.

Abuses are rife across all of Libya’s 26 official detention centers, but the worst case is the camp in Zintan. 

While the majority of centers lie along the coast near the capital of Tripoli, the Zintan facility is 170 km inland, in a mountainous desert region.

The camp is “isolated and forgotten; a place of malicious and deadly neglect,” according to Channel 4 News.

The abuses at Zintan, too numerous to list exhaustively, have led to 22 officially confirmed deaths from September through mid-July, with the true figure surely much higher. The large majority of detainees hail from Eritrea.

The taps for drinking water at the camp are opened by the guards for just ten minutes a day at 4am. There is a daily queue for refugees to get their one cup of water per day and fights can break out among the desperately thirsty men.

Detainees go without direct sunlight for months, with food delivered through a small hatch. They receive one small tub of couscous or similar comestible to share between two people. Unsurprisingly, many are starving.

The main detention hanger is very rarely cleaned and is filled with maggot-infested piles of rubbish and rotting food. 

The toilets consist of a small collection of plastic buckets for over 650 people. Diseases are widespread, including scabies, diarrhea, and tuberculosis; all easily treatable, but the camp lacks any proper medical facilities.

No doctor has visited for six months. 22 people have died of medical neglect since September, including Abdulaziz Abuka an eight-year-old boy from Gambia.

Abdulaziz’s father also died in the detention center. None of those who have died were charged with any crime. All of them were officially registered as refugees and therefore had the right to asylum. 

Abuse in the Zintan facility is systemic. Camp guards have been known to conspire with human traffickers to abuse detainees for ransom.

Images of inmates hung upside down, bound and gagged, and held at gunpoint are often sent to victims’ families on social media. Daily protests erupt among the desperate prisoners, with many blaming the UN for abandoning them.

Videos have emerged of inmates holding posters written with tomato paste and other food-stuffs, bearing messages such as: “We need save life,” “We are being starved to death,” and “We are victim by UNHCR in Libya.” 

22-year-old inmate Tesfai says: “In Zintan we are dying. Starving, hungry, sick. A lot of people are developing mental disorders. I can’t explain my feelings or control my feelings because we are dying.”

Another inmate said: “We are detained in Hell. We are praying in our sleep…we are hopelessly desperate.”

While many of the refugees blame the UNHCR for abandoning them, the UNHCR somewhat bizarrely blames the fact that the Libyan state restricts their access to detention facilities.

In a statement, the UNHCR said: “Our access is restricted . . . . There is no detention center in Libya suitable for hosting refugees and migrants. No time should be lost in securing the immediate release of all those currently being held.” 

While not unusual, this abdication of responsibility on the part of the UN will strike many as absurd, bordering on surreal.

If the UN does not have the power to override law enforcement in nation states, especially a failed state such as modern Libya, it begs the question as to what the UN is for.

It is true that “no time should be lost in securing the immediate release of all those currently being held,” but this task is clearly the responsibility of bodies like the UNHCR itself. 

Some of the ineptitudes almost defy belief. According to Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, 203 people were returned to the camp in Al-Khoms in June, but a recent report shows that only 30 people are currently being held at the facility.

We don’t know what’s happened to the rest of them,” says Colville. “We are really worried.” 

Colville went on to admit openly that “it is beyond the power of UN bodies and NGOs to solve this,” again raising questions as to the purpose of the relevant UN departments.

He then deflected responsibility towards the EU, saying: “We’ve made recommendations to the European Union and the individual member states . . . but it doesn’t really seem to be working.” 

The EU, in turn, claims that responsibility for the obscenity of Libya’s detention centers lies with the UNHCR. This constant passing of the buck is a significant part of the institutionalized ineffectiveness that so often allows flagrant abuses to go unchecked. 

Dimitris Avramopolous, European Commissioner for Migration, has called the Libyan camps “dire” and “a disgrace.” Yet the European Union is currently funding the Libyan coastguard to transport migrants to these facilities.

This is one of many ways in which the EU is not merely ineffective at dealing with the migrant crisis, but in fact complicit in exacerbating it.

The result of such policies is that many refugees are left with three options: to stay where they are and risk death or persecution; to attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea and risk drowning; or to be sent to the living hell of a detention center awash with disease, malnutrition, and abuse.

Human beings deserve better.


Tom Pollitt – A director for fair-trade business Yamas, of which he is a cofounder. Also worked in Morocco for the U.S.G affiliated language institute, AmidEast.


Inside Arabia

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