Tajoura detention center in Tripoli, Libya | Photo: Reuters/I.Zitouny
Tajoura detention center in Tripoli, Libya | Photo: Reuters/I.Zitouny

Migrants are being allowed to leave the Tajoura detention center in the Libyan capital Tripoli, about two weeks after it was hit by an air strike which killed at least 53 people and injured 130 others. The UNHCR Libya is trying to register and provide assistance to many who have left but what will happen to them next?

“We opened the gates and let them go,” said one Libyan official to the news agency Reuters. He did not want to be named. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Libyan officials allowed “at least 100 migrants to walk free” from the Tajoura detention center. Reports on Wednesday said that the Libyan authorities have announced the gradual closure of the camp. 

Since the bomb attack at the beginning of July, which saw at least 53 deaths and another 130 people injured, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been providing assistance to as many of the estimated 600 former detainees as they can. On Tuesday, the UNHCR tweeted that they had “visited Tajoura and provided food, water and medical assistance.”

However, they acknowledge that evacuations from Libya remain “limited” and that they are aiming to relocate the most vulnerable to a Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) in Libya as soon as possible. Meanwhile, they continue to push for the release of all remaining detainees.

Reuters on Tuesday reported that at least 110 had chosen to remain and were sleeping in the open air on mattresses because they feared going back inside the hangar incase of any further air strikes.

On Wednesday, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the Libyan authorities were thinking of closing a further 15 (out of a total 24 detention centers in Libya) under their control in and around Tripoli. The UNHCR cautioned however that proper evacuation plans were needed and European governments would need to take responsibility for what to do with the people currently being held before they are set free.

Humanitarian assistance

Aftermath of the airstrike on Tajoura detention center, Libya, July 3, 2019 / Photo: Hazem Turkia/picture-alliance

The UNHCR has made several visits to the center since the bombing occurred. In a statement which they posted on Twitter, they said they “welcomed the decision [by the Libyan authorities] to give the remaining detainees [who hadn’t already been put on a UNHCR list] the choice to freely leave the detention center.” Their statement continued saying that the “55 most vulnerable refugees, which include women, children, families and unaccompanied minors,” had already been moved to a GDF in Tripoli “pending evacuation to a third country.”

Those who have not been taken to the GDF are being offered support from various international bodies including the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Food Program (WFP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and partners “through a UNHCR Community Day Center (CDC).”

An initial attempt to evacuate the most vulnerable refugees from the detention center had been blocked, said the UNHCR, by another group of refugees in the center who “demanded that everyone in Tajoura should be evacuated to a third country.”

'Release all in detention centers'

On July 3, the UNHCR Chief of Mission in Libya, Jean-Paul Cavilieri spoke in a UN video directly after the bombing.

Apart from condemning the attack itself, he reiterated the UN’s call for a release of all those in detention centers in Libya saying that “refugees and migrants should not be detained in the first place. [And] civilians should never be targeted.” Cavilieri also said that the UNHCR did not agree with any refugees or migrants being returned to Libya at this time when rescued at sea because it is “not a safe port for disembarkation.” He also repeated the call for the international community to set up humanitarian corridors “to make sure that all refugees who are in danger can be [brought] to safety abroad.”

For those that are left, there are not many options pointed out Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson from the IOM in the Mediterranean region. On July 9 he tweeted:

Just a few days before Di Giacomo also tweeted that almost as many migrants were being sent back to Libya as had managed to arrive in Italy or Malta so far this year. 

The situation in Libya

In order to improve the situation on the ground, the UNHCR has been concentrating on what they call “Quick Impact Projects” (QUIPs). They currently have 14 QIPs in operation on the ground, providing to basic needs like water, sanitation and food. In cities like Tripoli, the UNHCR has set up community development centers. The organization implements outreach visits and telephone hotlines to identify and register people in need. When given access, the UNHCR also visits detention centers. Migrants in a detention center in Libya | Photo: ARCHIVE/ANSA/ZUHAIR ABUSREWIL

By the end of June 2019, the UNHCR Libya had registered 55,750 refugees and asylum seekers and had identified 769,159 people of concern. Only 2000 people are to be submitted for resettlement. And so far this year, only 1,223 detained refugees and asylum seekers had been released from detention centers and only 1,005 people had been flown either to Niger (710) or Italy (295).

Funding remains a problem: At the end of June, UNHCR reported that they have only received 27 percent of the 88.1 million US dollar funding they required for 2019 to support their initiatives. 

'Still afraid'

One migrant from Sudan, who asked to go by the nickname Kosofo told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the attack on Tajoura was like “seeing hell with my own eyes.” He compared it to the things he had seen during the Darfur war in southern Sudan. According to the journalist Sally Hayden, who has written extensively on this subject, Kosofo had already tried to cross the Mediterranean four times since 2017. On each occasion she wrote, “he was caught by the Libyan coastguard,” and “imprisoned in six different detention centers.” Most recently, Hayden adds that Kosofo was arrested on the streets of Tripoli and brought to Tajoura just a week before the bomb attack. His story, she writes “raises the questions about what will happen to the most vulnerable if the detention centers [are] finally closed.”

Although the detention centers are meant to be under control of the internationally recognized government, in reality, they are run by militias notes Hayden. She quotes Sam Turner, Head of Mission in Libya for Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF). Turner says that even when migrants are released their troubles do not disappear. “Not only are they walking out with nothing in their pockets and nothing on their backs, they are still afraid of the wider situation.” Since the latest conflict began in April the general levels of insecurity and the presence of armed militias on the streets have increased.

People smuggling to Europe is big business, particularly in Libya where the formal structures have largely broken down since 2011. The European Crime Agency Europol estimated in a report in 2016 that criminal networks were turning over between 3-6 billion euros through people smuggling and that “turnover was set to double or triple in the upcoming year.” They termed it the “fastest growing criminal market in Europe and other regions.” The detention centers might slowly be closing but what happens to all but the most vulnerable is a question that is still left wide open.