Four young refugees have died in Libya’s Zintan migrant detention centre since mid-September, according to other detainees, who say extremely poor conditions, including a lack of food and medical treatment, led to the deaths.
The fatalities included a 22-year-old Eritrean man, who died last weekend, according to two people who knew him.
Most of the refugees detained in centres run by Libya’s Department for Combatting Illegal Immigration (DCIM) were returned to Libya by the EU-backed coastguard, after trying to reach Europe this year.
The centre in Zintan, 180 km southwest of Tripoli, was one of the locations the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) moved refugees and migrants to after clashes broke out in the capital in August. Nearly 1,400 refugees and migrants were being held there in mid-September, according to UNHCR.
"At this detention centre, we are almost forgotten," detainee there said on Wednesday.
Other aid organisations, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), criticised the decision to move detainees out of Tripoli at the time.
“Transferring detainees from one detention centre to another within the same conflict zone cannot be described as an evacuation and it is certainly not a solution,” MSF Libya head of mission Ibrahim Younis said. “The resources and mechanisms exist to bring these people to third countries where their claims for asylum or repatriation can be duly processed. That’s what needs to happen right now, without delay. This is about saving lives.”
UNHCR couldn't confirm the reports, but Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, said: “I am saddened by the news of the alleged death of migrants and refugees in detention. Renewed efforts must be made by the Libyan authorities to provide alternatives to detention, to ensure that people are not detained arbitrarily and benefit from the legal safeguards and standards of treatment contained in the Libyan legislation and relevant international instruments Libya is party to.”
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which also works in Libya, did not respond to a request for confirmation or comment. DCIM was not reachable.
Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been locked in indefinite detention by Libyan authorities since Italy and Libya entered into a deal in February 2017, aimed at stopping Africans from reaching Europe across the Mediterranean.
People in the centres are consistently deprived of food and water, according to more than a dozen detainees in touch with The National from centres across Tripoli. One centre holding more than 200 people has gone the last eight days without food, according to a man being held there.
Sanitation facilities are poor and severe overcrowding is common. Though the majority of detainees are teenagers or in their twenties, many suffer from ongoing health problems caused or exacerbated by the conditions.
Aid agencies and researchers in Libya say the lack of a centralised registration system for detainees makes it impossible to track the number of deaths that are happening across “official” Libyan detention centres.
Earlier this month, a man in his twenties died in Triq al Sikka detention centre in Tripoli, Libya, from an illness that was either caused or exacerbated by the harsh conditions in the centre, as well as a lack of medical attention, according to two fellow detainees.
One detainee in Triq al Sikka told The National that six others have died there this year, two after being taken to hospital and the rest inside the centre. Four were Eritrean, and three, including a woman, were from Somalia.
Another former detainee from the same centre told The National he believes the death toll is much higher than that. Earlier this year, the Eritrean man said he tried to tell a UNHCR staff member about the deaths through the bars of the cell he was being held in, but he wasn't sure if she was listening. The National received no response after contacting the staff member he named.
The deaths raise questions about the EU policy of funding the Libyan coastguard to intercept or rescue boats of migrants trying to reach Europe, and bring them back. This year, European leaders have repeatedly spoken about how this policy is decreasing the numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean.
However, most of those who are returned to Libya are locked up in indefinite detention, in extremely poor conditions, which detainees say are exacerbating existing health problems, as well as fuelling the spread of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.
“He died two times,” another Eritrean refugee said of the man who died in Triq al Sikka detention centre. “He didn’t see the freedom. I mean this [is] double death for him because he struggled but didn’t reach his destination.”
In August, another detainee was tortured to death, according to three people who knew him. The man had been taken by Libyan guards after protesting the conditions in the detention centre he was in. When he was returned to his friends, he was so badly injured that he died within an hour.
"They say they decrease the number of deaths happening in the Mediterranean Sea, but they forgot the number dying in several detention centres," an Eritrean detainee told The National.
The man, who is Christian, said Libyan guards won’t allow detainees to do anything to mark the deaths. “We don’t know where they take the dead bodies or where they [bury] them, even they don’t give you any chance to ask about these questions.”