Libya: Unlawful lethal force and mass arrests in unprecedented migrant crackdown

Libyan security forces and militias in Tripoli have used unlawful lethal force and other violence in an unprecedented roundup of over 5,000 men, women and children from Sub-Saharan Africa and are holding them in horrid conditions where torture and sexual abuse are rampant, said Amnesty International. 

On 1 October, armed men from militias and security forces affiliated with Libya’s Interior Ministry violently broke into homes and temporary shelters in the Gargaresh area in Tripoli, home to a sizable population of refugees and migrants, firing rounds of live ammunition, damaging belongings and stealing valuables. Terrified migrants and refugees, including several registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), were then transferred to detention centres in Tripoli, where they are denied regular and confidential access to UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies and subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. 

“Libyan forces have a harrowing record of subjecting refugees and migrants to unimaginable horrors with impunity. Using unlawful lethal force to capture thousands of unarmed men, women and children solely on the basis of their race is a new low and lays bare the authorities’ utter disregard for the lives and dignity of refugees and migrants,” said Diana Eltahawy, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“We urge the Libyan authorities to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained solely on the basis of their migration status and to launch investigations into all incidents of unlawful use of force, torture and sexual violence. In the interim, authorities should ensure that those in detention are treated humanely, held in conditions that meet international standards and granted unimpeded access to UNHCR and other humanitarian actors without delay.”

To document the raid and its aftermath, Amnesty International spoke to witnesses, victims and family members, and examined dozens of videos and photographs shared by witnesses and published online of the raid and detention centres. While Amnesty International was unable to independently geolocate the videos, the location of interviewed witnesses was verified.

Violent raids, unlawful use of lethal force, xenophobic arrests 

According to eyewitnesses and video analysis, in the early hours of 1 October, armed men wearing uniforms with logos of the Interior Ministry and two affiliated militias, the Security Directorate’s Support Force and the Public Security Agency, whose role in violations against migrants and refugees has previously been documented by Amnesty International, arrived in Gargaresh. Some were riding in armoured vehicles with mounted weapons and fired live rounds at unarmed refugees and migrants as they began to arbitrarily arrest thousands of Sub-Saharan Africans. 

Witnesses told Amnesty International that they saw at least three men being shot and falling to the ground lifeless.  According to a statement by Georgette Gagnon, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya, at least one man was killed, while 15 sustained gunshot wounds. Using live ammunition against unarmed people posing no imminent threat to life or injury is a gross human rights violation and can constitute an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life.

Witnesses said the armed men targeted people on the basis of their race. One man who managed to escape told Amnesty International: “They arrested anyone who is black.” A woman told Amnesty International that when she attempted to show her UNHCR registration, an armed man tore it before arresting her and taking her to a detention centre run by the Directorate of Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), a department of the interior ministry responsible for policing migration.

Migrants and refugees told Amnesty International that armed men beat and kicked them, ransacked houses and stole money and belongings. Women reported that armed men groped them during the raid. 

The Interior Ministry issued a statement claiming that the raid was part of a “plan to attack criminal hideouts” used for “distributing drugs and alcohol and shelter undocumented migrants” and announced plans to deport the captured “irregular migrants.” 

Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity Abdelhamid al-Debiba visited Gargaresh following the raid claiming that the goal of the operation had been to “clean the area of alcohol, drugs and prostitution.” He made no mention of casualties or plans to investigate. 

Since the raid, security forces and militias have been carrying out further arrests of refugees and migrants from across Tripoli. 

Inhumane detention conditions

The United Nations estimated that as many as 5,000 migrants and refugees have been arrested since the raid, further exacerbating already dire conditions in DCIM detention centres.

DCIM guards and militiamen, nominally under control of the Interior Ministry, have subjected those detained since the 1 October raid to abuse, ill-treatment and sexual assault. Detainees and family members reported being beaten and kicked with sticks and backs of rifles.  A video received on 3 October from a detention centre, analysed by Amnesty International, shows men in camouflage beating detainees and forcing them to run and squat.

A woman detainee in al-Mabani DCIM detention centre told Amnesty International that male guards had sexually assaulted several girls and women. Another woman detainee in Shara’ al-Zawiya detention centre said she was forced to strip naked in front of male guards, who then searched and groped her.

Videos from both the al-Mabani and Share’ al-Zawiya detention centres showed extremely overcrowded and filthy hangars. In one video, a detainee appears to have collapsed while others are seen banging on the door for guards to save him. 

Detainees also said DCIM guards did not provide them with sufficient food or clean water, and they were forced to urinate and defecate inside the hangars where they were held. One woman detainee in al-Mabani told Amnesty International that she and her children were drinking toilet water. 

Amnesty International has previously documented how DCIM guards and militia members routinely subject migrants and refugees to torture and other ill-treatment, cruel and inhuman detention conditions, extortion and forced labour in al-Mabani and Shara’ al-Zawiya detention centres.

Living in fear

As a result of the raids, many migrants and refugees in Tripoli went into hiding or became homeless, as they are unable to return to their homes for fear of arrest or because their homes were destroyed during the attack. The Tripoli Security Directorate of the Interior Ministry issued a statement on 4 October calling on employers and landlords to register foreign workers. The social media page of the Hay Al-Andalus municipality, which encompasses Gargaresh, said that authorities had evicted around 7,000 “illegal migrants.” 

Following the raid, dozens of migrants and refugees went to the Tripoli Community Day Centre of UNHCR calling for protection and shelter. Two told Amnesty International that on 5 October men in military clothes ordered them to leave and beat them. Amnesty International examined a video consistent with these allegations. A woman who went into hiding after the raid told Amnesty International: “all we want is security, we cannot even go out to buy food or work, our babies are starving.”

Refugees and migrants are trapped in Libya with no safe ways out. Libyan authorities have suspended a number of evacuation flights out of Libya in 2021. This year, only 1,311 migrants returned to their countries of origin through programmes by the International Organization for Migration, while only 212 refugees were resettled elsewhere. Amnesty is aware that at least one woman and two children, among those arrested during the raid, were scheduled for evacuation out of Libya, but their flight was indefinitely postponed. 

EU cooperation

Despite overwhelming evidence of the harrowing violations against refugees and migrants in Libya, the European Union and its member states, in particular Italy, have, for years, provided Libyan coast guards with speedboats, training and other forms of support, enabling and incentivizing them to stop migrants and refugees from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe and bring them back to indefinite arbitrary detention in life-threatening conditions.  They continue to do so despite full awareness of the horrific violations committed against migrants and refugees. Since the Gergaresh raid, at least 645 people were intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guards and brought back to DCIM detention centres.

We have called time and time again on the European Union and its member states to look at the deadly consequences of their containment policies and stop enabling Libyan authorities to intercept people at sea and forcibly return them to a vicious cycle of abuse. People seeking security are paying the price for the EU-sponsored system, built with the aim of keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe at all costs.

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International

Amnesty International urges the EU and member states to urgently suspend any co-operation with Libya on migration and border control. They must ensure that any future cooperation is contingent upon Libyan authorities ending the policy of arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees and effectively investigating abuses against them. The EU and its member states must also open additional safe and legal routes into Europe, through the offer of a meaningful number of places for resettlement and alternative pathways for protection for the thousands of people in need of protection stranded in Libya.