The juxtaposition of the headlines was jarring, in a way that seemed newly unbearable despite all we’ve learned in recent years about African migrants seeking a pathway to Europe, the horrific realities they encounter in transit and in Libya – and the complicity of European governments in their suffering.
The German captain of the Sea Watch 3 rescue ship, detained in Italy for insisting that dozens of migrants disembark at Lampedusa rather than returning to Libya, was released Tuesday by an Italian judge who said Carola Rakete had done nothing wrong while trying to save lives. Rakete, at the helm of the rescue ship, insisted that “Libya, where migrants face unlawful detention, rape, torture and slavery, is not a Port of Safety.” She was widely hailed as heroic for her decision, though certainly not in all quarters of Europe where public opinion and policy conspire to prevent migrants from reaching its shores.
Just hours later came the first unconfirmed reports that a migrant detention facility at Tajoura had been hit by an airstrike that left dozens dead, most of them African migrants. That death toll has now reached at least 53, including six children, with another 130 injured, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Reportedly, bodies of those killed are still being recovered from the rubble. The (detention center) was apparently struck twice, with one missile hitting an unoccupied garage and another hitting a hanger which contained some 120 refugees and migrants,” said UNOCHA. “There are reports that following the first impact, some refugees and migrants were fired upon by guards as they tried to escape.”
‘Libya is not a safe place of return’
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency, said there were at least 600 people, including women and children, held at the site just east of embattled Tripoli. The city’s latest trials began in April when Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) that controls the eastern and southern part of the country, launched an offensive to take Tripoli. It remains the seat of power for the Government of National Accord (GNA), the internationally recognized government led by Fayez Al-Sarraj.
“The airstrike that left scores dead, also left dozens injured. For that reason, we expect the final death toll to include many more victims,” IOM said in a statement. “Including those victims at Tajoura, some 3,300 migrants and refugees remain arbitrarily detained inside and around Tripoli in conditions that can only be described as inhumane. Moreover, migrants and refugees face increasing risks as clashes intensify nearby.”
IOM demanded an independent investigation and stood with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in an angry lament over the many warnings it’s given to the international community about the safety of people living in the detention centers. A clearly irate Filippo Grandi, head of UNHCR, responded swiftly.
“They must NOT be detained,” he said in a social media response. “Civilians must NOT be a target; Libya is NOT a safe place of return. And of course, states with influence must cooperate to end conflict, rather than fuel it.”
In the joint response from IOM and UNHCR, they said the incident deserves “more than condemnation.” There’s no question that’s the case. Those responsible need to be held accountable. Ghassan Salamé, head of the UN mission in Libya, said this wasn’t even the first time the Tajoura facility had been attacked since Haftar – who enjoys the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, among others – walked away from a national dialogue meant to lead to delayed Libyan elections and instead opted for conflict.
‘Could constitute a war crime’
In fact, the same Tajoura facility was hit on May 7, despite humanitarian workers notifying all parties of the GPS coordinates of detention facilities where civilians are trapped. The next day, to no avail, the refugee agencies asked again that the detained migrants be moved to safety. UNOCHA said this latest Tajoura attack nearly doubled the number of civilians who have died in the LNA-GNA fighting in the past three months.
“This attack clearly could constitute a war crime, as it killed by surprise innocent people whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter,” Salamé said. “The absurdity of this ongoing war today has led this odious bloody carnage to its most hideous and most tragic consequences.”
The LNA denies responsibility for the airstrike and says it too wants an investigation. The GNA called it “mass murder” and appealed directly to the African Union (AU), among others, to take action. In a joint statement from the Task Force of the AU, UN and the European Union (EU) issued Wednesday, the airstrike on civilians was condemned. The Task Force also joined the chorus of those calling for an end to the detention of migrants in Libya, and appealed to all parties to “manage asylum and migration in full compliance with human rights law and the regional refugee instrument Libya is party to.”
Yet the EU’s own clashes over migration are at the root of the problem, and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which provided treatment to some victims, didn’t hesitate to address European complicity. “The reality is that for every person evacuated or resettled this year, more than twice as many have been forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard with support from the European Union,” said MSF.
No more empty condemnation, they said. The migrants and refugees need to be moved out of Libya.