Why attack on Libya detention centre was grimly predictable

Shocking as the precise circumstances are behind the deaths of at least 44 people in an airstrike that hit a detention centre in Tajoura in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, it is a predictable incident.

Even as footage circulated online claiming to show blood and body parts mixed with rubble and migrants’ belongings from the air raid blamed on the forces of the warlord Khalifa Haftar, it emerged the detainees had been housed in a hangar next to a weapons store – the likely target of the strike.

EU officials have long been aware of the risks in Libya, where migrants have faced atrocious mistreatment at the hands of militias, while Europe’s governments have prevented the sailing of migrant boats to Italy and elsewhere.

Critics point to the EU’s decision to withdraw the naval assets involved in Operation Sophia, which provided a vital role in saving lives at sea, saying this has led to thousands more people being detained or trapped in facilities such as the one in Tajoura.

In recent months, since Haftar and his self-styled National Liberation Forces launched their assault on the UN-backed government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, alarm bells over the safety of migrants had only grown louder. About 3,000 are housed in locations close to the fighting where migrants have already been killed.

In the case of the Tajoura facility, the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, noted it had warned less than two months ago that anyone inside the detention centre was at risk of being caught in the fighting around Tripoli.

Amnesty had also warned of the risk of detaining migrants close to a military site after an airstrike hit a military vehicle about 100 metres from the detention centre on 7 May.

Last month, it was the turn of the UN’s office of the high commissioner for human rights, whose spokesman, Rupert Colville, outlined a litany of abuses and dangers facing migrants detained in Libya, often after being intercepted by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard.

Among the abuses Colville listed were reports of detainees dying untreated from tuberculosis in “ghastly conditions”, including 22 people in the Zintan facility south of Tripoli since September.

Some, Colville said, appeared to have been sent deliberately to facilities close to the frontline, while others still had simply disappeared amid suspicions they had been trafficked after their detention into forced labour, for sexual exploitation or passed on again to smugglers offering transit to Europe.

As the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch made clear in a scathing report published in January titled No Escape from Hell, none of this should come as much of a surprise to officials.

Two years ago, the EU’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, was compelled to acknowledge the shocking state of the detention centres in Libya and the widespread abuses, even as the bloc continued to support the anti-migration efforts at sea of Libyan authorities.

“We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya,” said Avramopoulos, conditions that have barely improved while the risks to those held in them have mounted.

In July 2018, when Human Rights Watch researchers visited four detention centres in Tripoli, Misrata and Zuwara, they documented what they described as “inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water”, as well as “disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings and use of electric shocks”.

Commenting in the aftermath of the airstrike, Elinor Raikes of the International Rescue Committee called for detention centres to be evacuated.

“This devastating development is a testament to the immense vulnerability of the refugees and migrants who remain trapped inside detention centres across Libya,” she said.

“The fear and horror felt by those trapped in Tajoura and across Libya is unimaginable. People caught in detention centres must be evacuated to a place of safety outside Libya and search and rescue operations at sea immediately restored to protect those fleeing the violence.

“A ceasefire is urgently needed. European governments and the US must recognise their role in bringing the warring parties back to the negotiating table.”

Source: Theguardian.com

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