Europe silent on plight of detainees in Libya, says migration chief

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Yousef Murad/AP</span>
Photograph: Yousef Murad/AP

Europe has been accused by a senior international official of acquiescence over the plight of thousands of migrants in Libya held in arbitrary detention in “deplorable conditions”.

Federico Soda, chief of mission at the International Organisation for Migration’s mission in Libya, said not enough was being done by outside actors to try to change the war-torn country’s “environment of arbitrary detention and deplorable conditions” for migrants.

International observers have reported that people seeking to get to Europe, who are returned to Libya, have been killed, tortured, raped and trafficked in “hellscape” state-run detention centres. A report for the UN Human Rights Council concluded last year that conditions in Libya’s migrant detention centres were a possible crime against humanity.

“Most member states are silent on these issues in Libya,” Soda told reporters in Brussels. “On a number of issues in the country we [the IOM] are the only voice. That is problematic. What concerns me is kind of the acquiescence,” he said, characterising the attitude as: “‘It’s not a problem on our shore, so let’s just keep it there’.”

The IOM mission chief said there needed to be “more condemnation” and “more calls for law and order for investigations”.

He was speaking after a recent IOM report showed a record 32,425 people attempting to travel to Europe were returned to Libya in 2021, after being intercepted or rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.

The EU funds Libya’s coastguard to carry out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. But refugees and other migrants who have been intercepted in their attempts to reach Europe have told Amnesty International the Libyan coastguard is negligent, reckless and deliberately damages boats, causing them to capsize.

In a harrowing report last year, the NGO said that migrants returned to Libya were transferred to “hellscape” government-run detention centres, where they are subject to torture, sexual violence and beatings. Some were killed in detention centres run by Libya’s Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration. Others held in DCIM centres paid ransoms to escape or were made to become forced labourers, the NGO said.

According to Amnesty International, 6,100 people were in DCIM detention centres in June 2021. Many more people disembarked to Libya are unaccounted for, believed by the NGO to be locked up in informal detention centres controlled by militia groups.

A report commissioned by the UN’s human rights council last October concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that the murder, enslavement, torture and persecution of migrants was part of a systematic state-led attack against this group of people that “may amount to crimes against humanity”.

The IOM chief of mission declined to name EU political leaders or authorities, saying it was a society-wide responsibility. “It’s not about elected people; I think the whole of the community has a responsibility here, because when societies becomes as polarised as we have been on migration issues I think we all have to look in the mirror and maybe put ourselves in the shoes and the conditions of where these people are coming from.”

The IOM – a United Nations agency headquartered in Geneva – argues there should be more legal routes for people to come to Europe, but Soda said he had seen “virtually no openness on this side of the Mediterranean on legal channels”.