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Migrants Libya

Revisiting the Tajoura airstrike, meeting the survivors

TRIPOLI — Since the beginning of the war in Libya opposing Marechal Haftar’s militias and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), the migrants who try to make their journey to Europe through Libya have been effectively stuck between a rock and a hard place. Survivors of the airstrike on the Tajoura Detention Center speak to the Algiers Herald.

The Ministry of Health’s figures put the toll at 35 casualties, 28 of which were full bodies, the remaining 7 were dismembered by the airstrike. A Doctors Without Borders first responder describes a chaotic scene, unlike anything he had seen before in the country: surviving migrants carrying their companions’ body parts. The victims were from Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Mauritania, and Somalia. Harrowing reports of the attack emerged shortly after the airstrike, including reports of the armed guards preventing migrants from leaving the centre during the attack.

It all started in 2008 when Berlusconi and Gaddafi signed an agreement on migration control that would see the Italian coast guard start carrying out pushbacks of migrants’ vessels in the Mediterranean sea. An agreement later deemed in violation of EU Human rights laws. At the time the European Court of Human Rights heard the case of Hirsi Jamaa and Others vs. Italy, it concluded that the pushback operations carried out by the Italian navy exposed the migrants to become at risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. This was confirmed over the following years when journalists started uncovering the sinister living condition in these EU-funded Libyan detention centres: torture, blackmail, rape were commonplace.

Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals, IOM

To circumvent the ECHR’s ruling, the European countries most affected by the arrival of migrants, decided to equip the Libyan coastguard and let them deal with the problem instead, out of sight out of mind, except that the Libyan authorities are far from trained or equipped to deal with the problem. The Tripoli Court of Appeal ruled against the bilateral agreement between the Libyan GNA’s prime minister Sera and the Italian authorities, signed on the 2nd of February 2017. For the court of appeal, the government did not seek the prior approval of Libya’s House of Representatives, and as such the transitional government had no authority to sign the agreement in the first place, the ruling judge added that migrants, in particular, Sub-Saharan, would be at risk of racism in the country. Racism towards Sub-Saharan migrants isn’t unique to Libya, it is a wider issue that affects the whole region. This deal was subsequently renewed by Italy and Libya on the 31st of January, 2020, omitting the inclusion of any amendments that would reduce the human rights toll, as denounced by Amnesty International. For the Italian government, internal political considerations trump any potential human rights considerations.

For Matteo De Bellis, an Amnesty International researcher on European migration policy, international law is adamant that you cannot be complicit in human rights violations, in other words, you cannot offer a third country the tools used in the commission of these violations.

Furthermore, it is estimated that the proportion of the training on human rights provided by the EU to the Libyan coastguard, amounts to roughly 0.5% of the total training content. “One Powerpoint slide” as described by Marwa Mohamed, Head of Advocacy at Lawyers for Justice in Libya, who considers that the fact that there’s no judicial oversight over these detention centres amounts to “illegal detention”. For Matteo De Bellis, not only the training is insufficient, but even if it were, it would defeat its purpose if it isn’t complemented by accountability; also highlighted by Matteo De Bellis, is the fact that no conditions in the regard of respect of human rights were set out in the agreement’s framework.

Late on the 2nd of July 2019, the EU and Libya’s carelessness will prove the deadliest. Up to 53 migrants (BBC figure) are killed in a detention centre that houses nearly 600, mostly sub-Saharan migrants and refugees. Another 130 are wounded in one of the deadliest assaults on civilians since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. It is the men’s shelter “no. 4” that will be struck by the second deadly missile.

Located on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli and run by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), an agency of the UN-backed GNA, the Tajoura centre happened to be at a walking distance from a weapons storage facility it is located inside the Dhaman military headquarters. Whether the strike was intentional is difficult to determine, both parties, Haftar’s and the GNA, blame each other. For Haftar’s forces, the migrants were essentially being used as human shields by the GNA. A suggestion proved to some extent by the New York Times, which reported how some migrants were forced to take part in the conflict within the boundaries of the military headquarters.

Abdellah Abubakr and Jamal Ahmed, are Sudanese migrants who managed to survive the strike, they tell us how another strike could be heard only a few minutes before their centre was hit, which appears to correspond to the strike that hit an empty garage within the centre minutes earlier. Now lodging in a migrant centre in Triq Al-Sikka, Jamal affirms: “We have asked several organizations to evacuate us but to no avail. From the night of the attack to July the 10th, the survivors chose to sleep in the centre’s courtyard rather than return to the dormitories.” One could also argue that asking the migrants to return where they had just witnessed utter horror demonstrates in itself the Libyan authorities’ lack of empathy towards these vulnerable migrants, far from what the EU seeks to portray in its official narrative.

Shortly after the attack, the Italian and Dutch Ambassadors to Libya, a delegation from the Moroccan Embassy, ​​a delegation from the United Nations and other international and local organizations came to inspect the effects of the airstrike. “Despite international condemnation, Western governments have not taken the issue of survivors seriously, and we continue to suffer and live in uncertainty,” Jamal adds. 

“The situation does not augur well for us and there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of evacuation outside of Libya in the immediate future,” affirms Abdallah. He further says: “International organizations and representations of their country do not care about migrants.”, and this “keeps us living in constant fear of a new airstrike”.

This wasn’t the first airstrike on the migrants’ facilities either. On the 7th of May 2019, an airstrike had already caused minor damage to a shelter within the detention centre. At the time, no injuries were reported; however, from the migrants’ perspective, this should have been taken as a warning of the risks they were being exposed to in the hands of a state that has pretty much lost control of the situation.

The Tajoura centre itself is located within the military headquarters of the municipality of Tajoura, these are known as the Dhaman headquarters, home to the Dhaman battalion, loyal to the GNA and only 10 km away from the fighting line.

Unwilling to return to the detention centres, many of the survivors sought refuge at the Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) run by the UNHCR in the country.

In a video leaked by a migrant, Lucie Gagne, the UNHCR’s Assistant Chief of Mission in Libya, addressed the migrants with what some immigrants considered a “threatening language,” stating that those who decide to stay at the GDF centre would have no access to assistance and would not be able to travel to a third country. The meeting was attended by a representative of the Ministry of Interior who stressed the need to evacuate the GDF centre and find solutions in coordination with UNHCR in Libya.

Mohamed Suleiman is a 31-year old Eritrean migrant survivor of the Tajura airstrike, who entered Libya on August 15, 2017, and tried to reach Europe via immigration boats before one of the Libyan Coast Guard patrols sent them back to the Tajura centre. 

Mohamed Suleiman says: “The situation in the Tajoura centre was not very good but one has to admit that it was far better than other detention centres. Some of the elements of the police were not good but the majority behaved properly with us. However, 5 months before the airstrike the situation deteriorated, and they began to give us only one meal a day. It coincided with the resumption of the war in Tripoli.”

Speaking on behalf of the survivors of Tajoura, Mohamed says that “the survivors refuse to leave the GDF for another detention centre. What we are asking for is to be evacuated outside of Libya. Libyans themselves want to leave Libya. Also, we refuse that some leave and others stay. We all leave or we all stay!” 

He continues by questioning the vocation of the UN and its mission: “Does the UN have a vocation to protect us or not? It could not protect us at Tajoura and it does not manage to protect us here.” He said they will not leave the GDF centre and that they will reject the exit offer, adding that UNHCR had told them they would give them. He adds that UNHCR told them that they had if UNHCR were to communicate with them again. 

Mohammed deplores how “migrants are sold as a commodity” in his own words. “UNCHR has told us they would give us 450 Libyan dinars (roughly $110) in exchange of leaving the centre and asked us to go to Qarji to register with the organization’s headquarters on an individual basis.” Frustrated by the whole situation, he affirms: “Unless I am killed and taken away, I will not leave of my own accord!”

According to Mohammed Suleiman’s testimony, Lucie Gagne came with individuals from the Libyan Ministry of Interior who presented them with three choices, namely to go out and follow up on their files from outside the centre, or to register in the program of voluntary repatriation to their countries, or exposure to legal action by the Libyan state without explaining the nature of this procedure, which Mohammed and other migrants understand as a threat.

Abdellah Abubakr, the Sudanese migrant, shares his friend Mohammed’s position. For him, their situation did not improve, neither before nor after the airstrike, he expresses his dissatisfaction with the performance of UNHCR in Libya. He affirms: “The situation was not good within the Tajoura Center. We were provided with a quantity of food equivalent to one meal a day and our basic needs were not met. Now, the situation did not improve at all. UNCHR, other organisations, journalists, and different delegations came to visit us but they have not done anything significant. The situation is still very bad. We do not see any perspective. They only ask us to be patient.” 

According to several testimonies, the attempts at escape by migrants from detention centres multiply, as a result of the difficult conditions which they experience in these centres. The inability of IOM’s voluntary return program to cope with the increasing number of migrants in their centres pushes migrants to attempt to escape because their lives seem to be suspended in these centres.

One of the migrants from Niger told the Algiers Herald that there were numerous solo or group escapes; he tried to escape but was apprehended by guards of the Anti-illegal Immigration Agency.

An officer of the Anti-illegal Immigration Agency accepted to speak to the Algiers Herald, under the condition of anonymity, he claims that there have been four attempts of group escape since the beginning of 2019. The fourth saw the escape of not less than thirty migrants around midnight before the intervention of the guards who prevented the others from doing so.

He admits to us that guards sometimes resort to violence against “troublemaking” migrants to maintain control over detention centres.

The officer confesses to our reporter in Tripoli how one migrant was violently attacked by guards in early March 2019 for demanding that he be let out or taken back to his country. Ultimately, he admits, guards “aren’t trained at all to deal with migrants in the event of an emergency”, their only response tends to be a violent one.

On August 1st, 2019, the Libyan Ministry of Interior of the Government of National Accord closed three migrants centres in the western region of the country: the Tajoura centre, the Misrata Center, and the Khoms centre. The Ministry of Interior urged the heads of these centres to classify the residents and take the necessary measures to complete the deportation process. A decision welcomed by UNHCR through its spokesperson, Andrej Mahecic, who called for “the orderly release of all refugees in the centres in Libya,” adding that UNHCR was ready to help them.

Mahecic confirmed that UNHCR had no details on the transfer of migrants detained in the three centres, pointing to the existence of nineteen official centres with about 4,700 refugees and migrants, which are under the control of the Government of National Accord.

UNHCR faces several obstacles and weaknesses in the process of absorbing and transporting migrants due to European policy and the Libyan authorities’ refusal to resettle migrants who, initially, do not find an adequate environment to settle because of the insecurity issues in the country.

On September 10th, UNHCR in Libya signed a joint agreement with the Government of Rwanda and the African Union to transfer refugees out of Libya. Rwanda says it is ready to accommodate up to 30,000 migrants in batches of 500. On the 26th of September 2019, the first evacuation flight arrived in Kigali late at night, 66 migrants, mostly comprised of the most vulnerable, such as children and women.

Other flights were scheduled over the next weeks, however, there was already concern as to how will these migrants be treated in Rwanda, what is next for them remains to be seen. Many of these migrants ended up in Libya in the first place because they were fleeing other conflict zones in Africa.

Officially, the Rwanda authorities say they want to show leadership through this Emergency Transit Mechanism. For UNHCR, it is a temporary solution while working towards a more sustainable solution; that is at east the official posture.

Elise Villechalane, a UNHCR liaison officer for Rwanda, stated that the refugees would have “the right to safety, access to medical care, school and work” with an expressed intent by UNHCR of making the migrants self-reliant.

“The refugees are required to respect the laws and regulations of the host country. Freedom of movement is granted provided they inform the authorities when they move outside of the district”, Villechalane told the East African recently.

Reassuringly, the permanent secretary at the ministry of emergency management and refugee affairs, Olivier Kayumba, told the Associated Press “Refugees who will wish to stay in Rwanda permanently will be given asylum”. The refugees will also be accommodated at a centre 60 kilometres away from Kigali and will be free to come and go from the centre without restrictions. 60 kilometres isn’t exactly next-door, particularly in a country that suffers from poor infrastructure, also, one has to look realistically at what Rwanda can provide to these migrants. Safety perhaps yes, but employment and long-term prospects remain highly unlikely.

Victoire Ingabire, an opposition figure in Rwanda has welcomed the decision by the ruling government to provide a lifeline to these vulnerable migrants, however, she also expressed concerns in an interview granted to a San Francisco based publication, stating “Giving refuge to migrants from Libya is a good action of solidarity among African peoples. But how long will Rwanda respect its promise to protect these migrants? People have to remember that Rwandan police killed 12 Congolese refugees in the camp in Kiziba, in western Rwanda, just last year – in February 2018 – when they protested conditions in the camp.”

In the past, migrants sent to Rwanda experienced abuse, more smuggling and no prospects for long-term stability as revealed by Foreign Policy in a long-investigation carried out on the ground.

For the Undersecretary for Immigration of the Libyan Interior Ministry, who holds the status of a brigadier in the police, there is a risk that smugglers may exploit the desire of migrants to leave, especially with limited opportunities to exit safely through international organizations. This will push migrants into human traffickers and “death boats” under the country’s precarious security situation caused by the ongoing war and the failure of Western countries to respond to the hopes of vulnerable migrants.

On August 27, Interior Minister Plenipotentiary of the Government of National Accord said that the United Nations has stopped assisting with the transfer of illegal immigrants to their countries, stressing that Libya is dealing with the phenomenon of migration from a “humanitarian perspective”: “Libya is overstretched in this regard, especially as it is going through uncertain circumstances. However, we are cooperating with relevant international organizations to find solutions to this problem”, Fathy Bashaga had stated.

Fathy Bashaga was speaking during a meeting with UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements at the Interior Ministry in Tripoli in the presence of the Director of the Department of Relations and Cooperation.

The president of the government of national accord, Fayez al-Sarraj, warned in interviews granted to two Italian newspapers that the war in Libya could push more than 800 thousand migrants towards the European coasts.

“There will not be only 800,000 migrants ready to leave. There will be Libyans fleeing this war,” Sarraj told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “We are facing an aggressive war that could hit the whole Mediterranean. Italy and Europe must be united and determined to deal with Hafter’s war of aggression”, pointing out that the destruction will also affect “neighbouring countries”.

The UN investigation mission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to investigate the bombing of the Tajoura centre. While the UN refused to disclose the results achieved by the investigation mission, the source of the airstrike was virtually confirmed after the forces of Marechal Khalifa Haftar admitted striking a camp in Tajoura although without admitting targeting the migrant detention centre. His forces alleged that the centre is used by the GNA’s military headquarters. 

A source at the UN mission explained that all parties know the location of the migrants well and that the targeted site is a migrant centre, which is not a military objective, stressing that the mission has almost finished achieving its delivery to the Secretary-General and the UN Security Council, “without disclosing the results of the investigation”.

In a new 13-page report on the Tajoura airstrikes, published by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the UN Human Rights Office, the UN calls for urgent action to prevent a similar tragedy from happening.

The report finds that that the airstrikes were likely conducted by aircraft belonging to a foreign state, noting that, “it remains unclear whether these air assets were under the command of the LNA (Libyan National Army) or were operated under the command of that foreign state in support of the LNA.”

This report was authored by Nourredine Bessadi and Yacine Bouatrous.

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