“Migration is part of the political bargaining in Libya”

What about the human rights situation in Libya? We interviewed Tarik Lamloum from the Libyan NGO Belaady on this issue.

FES: Mr. Lamloum, you are one of the founders of the Belaady organization, and an advocate for the rights of migrants in Libya. How would you describe the human rights situation in Libya in general, and for migrants in particular?

For decades, Libya has found it difficult to establish the concept of human rights. Unfortunately, the culture of the authoritarian regime that prevailed until 2011 has entrenched the notion that the only rights are those allowed by the authorities and the government. After 2011, it was only a few months before this old culture came back to dominate anew, which led to the loss of many gains and dreams that those demanding change had tried to attain. Libya is witnessing now a decline in all forms of rights and freedoms, especially the right to free expression and the right to assembly peacefully. Today, we have even reached the point where I have to ask permission from the security authorities just to write my responses to this interview.

In light of the deterioration of human rights in Libya, the suffering of migrants, asylum seekers and foreigners in general has intensified. In Libya, there is no legislation or efficient administration looking out for their wellbeing and protecting their rights. They are even exploited, as the migration issue is often used for political bargaining, to the extent that certain cities and tribes in Libya compete to win the migration ministry when the cake of government portfolios and responsibilities is distributed.

Where do people residing or detained in camps in Libya come from? And what are their main motives for migration?

Migrants come primarily from neighboring countries, such as Sudan, Niger, and Egypt, and secondarily from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria, and to a lesser extent Yemen. Their motives for migration and seeking asylum differ from one person to another. Some migrate to improve their living conditions, but the majority want to go to Europe. Those who find jobs and safety in Libya put off the idea of ​​migration to Europe for long periods, such as immigrants coming from Egypt, Chad, Sudan, and other non-conflict areas. As for asylum-seekers from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Syria (which are conflict areas), they wish to seek protection in one of the European Union (EU) countries, rather than remain in Libya. For Somalis, they often cannot work in Libya even if they want to, because they are not wanted in the Libyan labor market or within Libyan society, which is not accustomed to working with Somalis even though they are fluent in Arabic. Therefore, they wish to travel to Europe or to communicate with the UNHCR to expedite their exit.

While the Covid-19 has been making headlines in Europe for more than a year, this virus is rarely talked about in the context of migration. Has the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic affected the living conditions of migrants in Libya?

No accurate information or statistics exist regarding Covid-19 infections among migrants and asylum seekers in Libya, due to a lack of adequate medical and statistical staff. However, according to the numbers available, there was no outbreak of the pandemic among them. Regardless, migrants suffer from health problems more problematic than Covid-19s, including malnutrition; and the effects of the torture, kidnapping, and sexual assaults to which they are subjected during their journeys until they reach the detention centers.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, migrants in detention centers have enjoyed no governmental attention or international non-government Organizations (INGO) support. We have not seen, for example, any international aid related to Covid-19 provided to detainees. During our regular and frequent visits (as the Belaady team) to detention centers, we have not found, for example, a single mask provided by the UNHCR or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), even though we have information from reliable sources that the EU supported the IOM financially in order to improve the situation of detainees and buy protective supplies such as masks and sterilizers. These materials were handed over to the head of the national Migration Authority, who prevented the IOM from providing the means of health protection on its own, so that it had to hand them over to the Authority, and he promised that he would distribute them to the migrants. But this did not happen. They were placed in storage facilities. During our visits to the Souq al-Khamees detention center near Tripoli, and Alzintan and Cyrene centers in eastern Libya, we found no one wearing a mask or any detainee who had received sterilization materials, despite the presence of INGO staff in these centers.

The reason for the head of the Migration Authority not agreeing to the distribution of protection means by the IOM is to prevent it from entering the centers and seeing the tragic conditions of migrants there. Despite this, we believe that both the EU as the donor and the IOM are fully aware of these conditions, and of the fact that the aid does not reach its beneficiaries, but they take no action to change this situation for the better.

How can we imagine the situation of migrants in the Libyan camps in regard to access to food, clean water, health care etc.?

Until recently, we used to call these camps detention centers, but what is happening these days – especially after the end of the war, and the growing pressure on INGOs by the Libyan government – is that these centers have become collective punishment centers. It is no exaggeration to say that what I saw a few days ago, during my visit to a detention center frequented by EU-supported INGOs, was quite similar to the genocide camps we have heard about in history. We found around 70 women, most of them pregnant, with about 30 children with them, ranging in age from 9 months to 13 years, in a dark room with only one toilet. The door opens for them twice a day to provide them with a meal, which contains just one type of food in small quantities with no meat, vegetables, or nutrients. Guarding these centers are men only; there are no female guards at all. The only female member of staff who visits the detained women and their children is one female doctor from Doctors Without Borders.

How would you hence describe the situation for women, children, and minors who travel alone (without parents) in particular?

Female migrants and minors – especially female minors from Nigeria and Somalia –  suffer particularly during their journeys through the Libyan desert, up until their arrival in the city of Bani Walid (in northwestern Libya, 180 km from Tripoli) from weakness, malnutrition, kidnapping, and both physical and sexual assaults. Children and women are the most vulnerable to violence. They are usually held and tortured to extort money from their families before releasing them. They are held in warehouses not officially affiliated with any government authorities, though their locations and the people running them are well-known. Minors are often exploited through hard labor for very low wages.

Both the UNHCR and the IOM have failed miserably to protect these children and minors, even within international detention centers affiliated with them. So far, minors are not separated from adults. We have personally witnessed cases of repeated assaults and rapes of minors in a government-affiliated detention facility. Despite the INGOs knowing and being informed about these assaults, they have taken no action about them. They have failed to act decisively with the Libyan authorities.

What gives hope to you and your country? What do you seek from the EU with regard to migration?

There was a glimmer of hope during the last few months, after successful efforts to stop the war, and now there are efforts to withdraw the mercenary forces and establish a unified government. But a unified government alone is not enough to ease pressure on migrants and asylum seekers, since the new unified government’s policies towards migrants and asylum seekers have not changed. Migrants are still being rejected. Thus, we hope the EU will strike a balance in dealing with Libya. For example, the EU could reconsider its relations with the actors on the ground and conduct a genuine examination of the needs, in a manner differing from the traditional methods. The EU is used to communicating with representatives of INGOs when assessing the needs on the ground to approve the projects to be implemented. It does not engage local activists or local NGOs active on the ground, such as the Libyan Red Crescent and the Scouts teams, which have more experience and more accurate information about the situation, due to their direct and daily dealings with refugees and migrants.

What role can EU countries play to alleviate the suffering of migrants and uphold their rights and human rights in general in your country?

  • Stop supporting the Libyan Coast Guard until its capacity is ensured, and condition its support on ensuring human rights in Libya.
  • Pressure the Libyan authorities to respect the conventions and covenants by which they are bound, such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, which regulates migration within the African continent; the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obliges them to protect children seeking protection; the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families; and the Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR). Respect for these agreements should be a precondition for any new bilateral agreements.
  • Provide and ensure real protection for minors and women, without merely relying on the UNHCR. EU countries can, for example, speed up the opening of urgent humanitarian corridors to remove women and unaccompanied children in southern cities before they reach the coast and expose themselves to kidnapping, especially in the absence of any EU projects in the southern cities. Protection starts from the cities of the south, not in offices in the capital Tripoli.
  • Invest in economic and development projects in poor African countries, such as Sudan and Chad, in order to curb migration for economic reasons. With job opportunities, education, and basic living standards in migrants’ home countries, many children and women would opt against venturing into the Libyan desert. It is paradoxical that their needs and dreams are very simple, and could be achieved with projects less expensive than those intended to stop migration. For example: providing schools, drinking water, and doctors to treat them in their village. This is not difficult to achieve for the rich northern countries that are targeted by the migrant influx.

This text was first published in German on 18 June 2021 on this portal. It has been translated subsequently from Arabic to English by Samy Awikeh.