Over three days last October, Fatima Ausman Darboe watched her 7-year-old son dying from appendicitis. His stomach swelled, and he writhed in pain. She held him as his condition deteriorated. Most other mothers could have brought their child to a hospital, but Darboe was locked up inside a detention center in the Libyan desert. Instead, she called for guards to help. She begged, she pleaded, and her appeals were ignored.
Her little boy died in a car. The Zintan detention center’s manager had finally taken pity on them and drove the child toward a hospital himself. The International Medical Corps, the organization supposed to be providing life-saving care in the detention center, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—the United Nations agencies meant to be providing some additional assistance—were nowhere to be found.
UNHCR declined to comment on this case, while the International Medical Corps did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a written statement to Foreign Policy, IOM said the death was a “stark reminder of the terrible conditions migrants are forced to endure in detention centers” and that it had suspended health assistance in Zintan between October 2018 and this January “due to access issues with the management.”
The local Libyan community in Zintan, where Darboe was being held, refused to allow the burial of non-Muslim detainees, but her family was Muslim. Despite this, her son wasn’t laid to rest for a month. Darboe and her husband originally came from the West African nation of Gambia, a small sliver of a country surrounded by Senegal, but they had lived in Libya for years. It was only when her husband’s health deteriorated that they tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, in the hope of finding better medical care. Instead, like tens of thousands of others, they were caught and locked up in indefinite detention, in a system decried by former U.N. Human Rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein as “an outrage to the conscience of humanity.”
Weeks after Darboe’s son was buried, her husband died, too, seemingly from a stroke triggered by the shock of losing their child. Darboe, who was locked in a separate women’s hall, never got to say goodbye, though she begged to see her husband in the hours before his death. When she found out he was gone, Darboe said, she went into extreme shock. “I could not talk, I could not do anything. … All my body was just shaking,” she told Foreign Policy.
Their deaths were not the only ones. Refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centers began contacting me in August 2018, after they were told about my reporting by people I had interviewed in Sudan the previous year. Since then, I’ve spoken to dozens of detainees in many different centers, who use hidden phones to send information about what’s happening to them. I have repeatedly confirmed their allegations with many other sources.
I began to email both UNHCR and IOM about the mounting number of deaths in Zintan in October 2018, shortly after the U.N. was involved in moving hundreds of migrants and refugees there from Tripoli, Libya’s capital. It was only seven months later, when 22 detainees had died from a lack of medical care and abysmal conditions, that the U.N. finally spoke out about what was happening in Zintan and called for the detainees to be moved again. (When approached for comment, IOM said publicly sharing unconfirmed reports of events the organization did not witness could threaten the safety of migrants in detention. U.N. staff have previously confirmed to Foreign Policy that no organization is keeping track of the number of detainees dying across Libya’s network of detention centers.) As of this writing, hundreds remain locked up in Zintan.
This is just one of a seemingly endless series of scandals across a network of detention centers ostensibly run by the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration, which is associated with the U.N.-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). In reality, many of the detention centers are controlled by militias.
Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been locked up indefinitely in Libyan detention centers over the past two and a half years, after they were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard trying to reach Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. Since 2017, the Libyan coast guard has been supported with equipment and training worth tens of millions of dollars by the European Union. This money comes from the Trust Fund for Africa—a multibillion-dollar fund created at the height of the so-called migration crisis, with the aim of preventing migration to Europe by increasing border controls and funding projects in 26 African countries.
The EU’s deal with Libya—a country without a stable government where conflict is raging—has been repeatedly condemned by human rights organizations. They say the EU is supporting the coast guard with the aim of circumventing the international law principle of non-refoulement, which would prohibit European ships from returning asylum-seekers and refugees to a country where they could face persecution.
Inside Libya’s detention centers, thousands of refugees and migrants are deprived of food, sunlight, and water, and many become victims of sexual exploitation and assault, forced labor, and even torture or slaying.
In January, dozens of migrants and refugees were sold directly to human traffickers from the Souq al-Khamis detention center in Khoms, soon after they were delivered there by the Libyan coast guard.
In January, dozens of migrants and refugees were sold directly to human traffickers from the Souq al-Khamis detention center in Khoms, soon after they were delivered there by the Libyan coast guard.
The following month, 22 detainees were taken to an underground room and tortured following a protest in the Triq al-Sikka detention center, the unofficial Department for Combating Illegal Migration headquarters, located directly across the road from UNHCR’s new gathering and departure facility. Though they were aware of what was happening, IOM and UNHCR officials failed to properly advocate for the victims, according to aid officials and people who have worked with the U.N. who were familiar with the situation. An IOM spokesperson said IOM repeatedly called for the group to be released and for its staff to be granted access to them.
Fresh in the mind of detainees who organized the Triq al-Sikka protest were the weeks hundreds of detainees had spent locked up inside a hall without proper ventilation or any tuberculosis medication, meaning those with the disease passed it on to others. And there was the October 2018 death of a Somali detainee, who set himself on fire in that detention center after telling friends he felt hopeless about his chances of being evacuated to a safe country.
Since the latest conflict began in Tripoli in April, after eastern Gen. Khalifa Haftar ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army to advance on the capital, refugees and migrants say their lives have become even worse. Detainees in five detention centers told Foreign Policy they have been forced to assist GNA-associated militias by loading or moving weapons, cleaning military bases on the front lines, and even—in a few cases—fighting with guns.
In July, at least 53 detainees were killed in the Tajoura detention center, in eastern Tripoli, when a bomb dropped by Haftar’s forces directly hit the hall they were locked in, close to a weapons store. Survivors accused the GNA government of using them as “human shields.”
In extensive interviews with Foreign Policy, seven aid officials who currently work in Libya or have worked there in the last two years accuse U.N. agencies of ignoring or downplaying systemic abuse and exploitation in migrant detention centers in order to safeguard tens of millions of dollars of funding from the EU. (Since 2016, an EU spokesperson said nearly 88 million euros—$96 million—from the Trust Fund for Africa has gone to IOM in Libya, and 47 million euros—$52 million—to UNHCR.)
They say the EU, in turn, is using U.N. agencies to sanitize a brutal system of abuse that its policies are funneling tens of thousands of vulnerable people directly into.
All of these officials wished to stay anonymous for fear of professional repercussions. They all said while UNHCR and IOM do some important work, they are actively involved in whitewashing the devastating and horrific impacts of hardening European Union policy aimed at keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe. “They are constantly watering down the problems that are happening in the detention centers,” said one aid official. “They are encouraging the situation to continue. … They are paid by the EU to do [the EU’s] fucking job.”
When asked about the European Union’s role in facilitating the exploitation, torture, and abuse of thousands of refugees and migrants in Libya, EU spokespeople regularly point to the presence of the U.N. in detention centers, saying the EU is trying to improve conditions through these means and would like the centers closed.
“The EU is working with UN Agencies to provide protection and assistance to vulnerable migrants and refugees in most of the official detention centers in Libya, but also at disembarkation points and in host communities,” an EU spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an email. “We, together with the IOM and UNHCR, are providing life-saving assistance to vulnerable people held in detention centers while urging the Libyan authorities to close detention centers and replace them with reception centers that meet international humanitarian standards.”
While the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have been pointedly critical, UNHCR and IOM regularly thank the EU for funding through their social media accounts, without mentioning that the EU plays a central role in sending refugees and migrants to detention centers in the first place.
One UNHCR tweet on July 30 read: “Friendship means no-one is left behind. UNHCR is grateful for the support provided by the EU #AfricaTrustFund for the humanitarian evacuations of refugees from Libya … #FriendshipDay.” This type of selective messaging clashes harshly with the organization’s most regularly used hashtag, #WithRefugees, according to observers. It’s also one of the reasons UNHCR shouldn’t be representing the views of refugees, aid officials and detainees say.
It is clear the U.N. is operating in difficult conditions. UNHCR still lacks a mandate in Libya, despite the U.N.’s role legitimizing and supporting the Tripoli-based government. Jeff Crisp, a former UNHCR official who regularly tweets criticisms of the agency, said Libya is probably the “worst case scenario” for UNHCR to operate in.
According to Crisp, the problems include: “dependence on EU funding and inability to change EU policy; a government that is supported by both the UN and EU; weak government institutions that are closely linked to militias; desperate refugees who don’t understand why UNHCR can’t do more for them; irregular and limited access to the refugees; concerns over staff safety and security,” he wrote in an email. Aid workers, however, accuse U.N. spokespeople of misrepresenting the extent of their access to other aid agencies and donors in reports.
One aid official, who has visited multiple detention centers, said it is clear that tasks the U.N. agencies claim to be carrying out either aren’t happening or aren’t particularly effective. The aid official said the U.N. agencies are misleading donors, including the EU itself, about providing regular assistance in detention centers, including Zintan. The official also said the U.N. agencies have lied about engaging with refugees and migrants to identify their needs and priorities.
These false reports are being passed to donors, the aid official said: “They’re lying, they’re using fake numbers, they’re using medical teams that are not even there.” Another said it was clear the U.N. is “totally overwhelmed” with the situation, yet it has management who are always “on the defensive.”
UNHCR did not specifically respond to this point, but in a written statement to Foreign Policy, IOM said it is “present across the east, west, and south of Libya. Our teams conduct regular visits to detention centers, delivering emergency medical assistance and core relief items, and coordinating voluntary humanitarian return assistance to those wishing to go home. Suggesting that the organization is falsifying reports is utterly preposterous.”
It’s a defense that does not ring true to those working with migrants in detention.
More than anything, aid workers who spoke to Foreign Policy say they’re frustrated that U.N. agencies are unwilling to admit the limitations to what they can do, something they say is directly leading to extreme suffering and uncounted numbers of deaths. “In almost every country where there is an emergency there are always complaints, there are always issues and critics, but what we see in Libya is a complete mess,” said one aid official. “Here what we are missing is willingness to talk about it. People are scared.”
“If UNHCR cannot protect people in Libya, they have to say it,” said another.
They are also frustrated that the U.N. does not use the leverage it has with the GNA to demand an overhaul of the migrant detention system, given the U.N. is giving the government legitimacy by supporting it. This is particularly true now when the GNA is at war with Gen. Haftar. “It’s very unfortunate that the U.N. did not take advantage of this,” one aid worker said.
Instead of the intergovernmental bodies admitting their shortcomings, an aid official who has attended high-level meetings said they had seen UNHCR and IOM representatives defending Libyan militias associated with the GNA
Instead of the intergovernmental bodies admitting their shortcomings, an aid official who has attended high-level meetings said they had seen UNHCR and IOM representatives defending Libyan militias associated with the GNA: “When the issue of Zintan popped up and people were talking about the cases that were being reported, in at least two or three meetings I attended [UNHCR’s] chief of mission was just defending what the [Department for Combating Illegal Migration] and these militias were doing.”
The aid official also said an IOM representative dismissed the reports of deaths in Zintan as “fake news,” and both IOM and UNHCR staff have said refugees and migrants have many reasons to exaggerate things. Such denial and dismissal is common. Indeed, a high-ranking official at a U.N. agency told me in a 2018 email not to “take at face value” what I hear from detainees in Libya “even they are in a dire situation.” These agencies are actively “blocking” the truth from coming out, the aid official said.
In a statement to Foreign Policy, the IOM spokesperson Leonard Doyle said the organization has always been vocal about the “grim” conditions in detention centers in Libya. “We have, jointly with UNHCR publicly called upon the European Union and African Union to adopt a new approach to the situation,” he said. Doyle said donor funding had allowed IOM to return more than 47,000 people to their countries of origin since 2015, and that the organization continues to provide “much needed assistance” to thousands of migrants and displaced people inside Libya. “The suffering of migrants in Libya is intolerable and is of great concern to the organization. Any statements attributed to IOM and IOM staff suggesting otherwise are inconsistent with the organization’s core principles,” he said.
Foreign Policy is in regular contact with dozens of refugees and migrants currently in Libyan detention centers who have repeatedly argued over the past year that the U.N. is not properly representing them. “The UNHCR listens to the soldiers and not us,” one detainee said. “UNHCR does not work for us—it is a criminal organization,” said another.
“The UNHCR listens to the soldiers and not us,” one detainee said. “UNHCR does not work for us—it is a criminal organization,” said another.A third accused U.N. staff of treating detainees like “animals” and ignoring them. This became particularly clear when fighting broke out in Tripoli in August 2018, and Foreign Policy received evidence that less than one-quarter of people from refugee-producing countries in some besieged detention centers had actually been registered with UNHCR, despite requesting registration for months.
Officials familiar with the situation in Libya worry there may not be enough checks and balances, because other U.N. agencies are loath to question how UNHCR and IOM are operating.
“Both UNHCR and IOM are competing over resources,” said an aid official, but when it comes to questions about their failings, “they are united, because they want to defend themselves as a united front. There is kind of an informal agreement … a general understanding that [other U.N. agencies] should not stand against UNHCR or against IOM,” the aid official said. “There are different strategies: One is just to ignore, another is to pretend everything is fine, another to say we’ll look into it and do nothing.”
While UNHCR has helped 1,540 refugees leave Libya in 2019, this is only a small percentage of those stuck in a cycle between detention centers, smugglers, and the Libyan coast guard, some of whom have waited years to be considered for evacuation. In May alone, nearly as many refugees (1,224) were returned from the Mediterranean Sea and locked up in detention.
On multiple other occasions, UNHCR has released press statements saying they “evacuated” refugees to “safety,” or moved refugees “out of harm’s way,” when the refugees have instead simply been moved between detention centers, placing them in danger once again. In April, the agency used this terminology when 325 detainees were moved following an attack on the Qasr bin Ghashir detention center to the Zawiya center, which is run by a well-known alleged human trafficker and associated with a militia whose leaders are currently under U.N. sanctions.
In July, bombing survivors from the Tajoura detention center walked through dangerous Tripoli streets themselves for dozens of miles, only for a UNHCR spokesperson to tweet “UNHCR evacuated the survivors to safety” soon afterwards.
In July, bombing survivors from the Tajoura detention center walked through dangerous Tripoli streets themselves for dozens of miles, only for a UNHCR spokesperson to tweet “UNHCR evacuated the survivors to safety” soon afterwards.“I can confidently say there is an extreme exaggeration,” said a source who has worked with the U.N. in Libya. “The amount of time and money that we spend on visibility and public relations is more than they are spending on the actual work.”
In an email to Foreign Policy, UNHCR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly said the agency’s press release about Zawiya from April 24 makes it clear that moving refugees and migrants to Zawiya detention center “was the only available option at the time” and said it points out that Libya is a “dangerous and unsuitable place for refugees and migrants” while “calling for their release and evacuation to safety.”
When approached for comment on a list of 11 points raised in this article, Pouilly responded: “Your questions seem to indicate an incomplete understanding of the humanitarian and security situation and the severe constraints UNHCR faces on a daily basis in Libya. … Our efforts to help vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in Libya is based on a humanitarian imperative—saving lives—which is forcing us to deal with complex realities and sometimes jeopardizes our own staff security. We take this opportunity to reiterate that we only have restricted access to detention facilities and that we limit ourselves to providing humanitarian assistance to those in need.”
For refugees and migrants still in detention, UNHCR in particular has become a symbol of inaction, an agency whose logo has gone from inspiring feelings of admiration to fostering contempt.
“Whenever they do a publicity, the photographer and the commissioner come and take a picture of the logo, and then they write expressive words,” said one man from Darfur, who alleged that detainees have been threatened and beaten by Libyan guards in front of UNHCR staff without the staff doing anything to stop it (UNHCR denies this).
“UNHCR are playing us,” said another Darfuri, who says he survived the Tajoura bombing only to be denied help from the U.N. and left sleeping on the streets. Foreign Policy confirmed details of his story with other former Tajoura detainees.
Now, the bombing survivor said he has lost hope in UNHCR and is ready to return to smugglers. “I will try the sea again and again. I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said, adding, “I want the world to know how people are suffering in Libya, because many people die and lose their minds here.”