Last week in the Libyan city of Tripoli at least 44 people were killed when an airstrike hit the building in which they were arbitrarily locked up, Tajoura migrant detention centre. The final death toll could be much higher. Only the day before, an MSF team providing medical care in the centre counted 126 people in the cell that was hit.
Conditions in centres like Tajoura have been squalid for years, and even before conflict flared in Tripoli in April, many of the people trapped in detention centres were already in need of international protection. But in the months since April, they have become sitting ducks. MSF has been calling for their immediate evacuation. Tuesday’s horrific deaths are the price of the failure to act.
No one can claim to be surprised by what happened. In early May, an airstrike hit the same compound and a piece of roof collapsed just a few metres from where a baby was sleeping.
The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been quick to denounce the strike, saying on Twitter that the indiscriminate use of air power in civilian areas is unacceptable and calling on all parties to the conflict in Libya to ensure the safety of migrants.
What he fails to mention is the role thatthe UK government has played in trapping people in Libya’s detention centres and exposing them to such deadly risk.
In its 2018 human rights report published in June, the Foreign Office spoke of its role supporting the Libyan coastguard and navy “in securing Libya’s maritime borders in a manner compliant with its human rights obligations”.
It is difficult to see how sending people back to be locked up on the frontlines of a conflict – where at least 44 of them have now been killed – is compatible with human rights.
In early June, an MSF team visiting Tajoura detention centre counted more than 200 people who had been forcibly returned to Libya after being intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard. Returning people to the place from which they are fleeing is a violation of international law.
The EU - who finance, train and equip the Libyan coastguard – released a statement calling the attack shocking and tragic. They had sought to evacuate refugees and migrants from the detention centres near the frontline, the statement said.
The gulf between rhetoric and reality is astounding. For every person evacuated from Libya since the conflict started in April, almost four have been forcibly returned to the country.
Being held in Libyan detention centres makes migrants vulnerable to a whole range of abuses, which have been documented by MSF over recent years. We have heard of sexual violence, torture, malnutrition; of children being locked up; of people held in such cramped conditions that they cannot sit down but have to stand for hours on end; of people dying from tuberculosis with no hope of medical treatment.
Many people simply cannot go back to their countries of origin for fear of persecution, violence or grinding poverty. Other escape routes from Libya are being systematically cut off.
The sea crossing is a desperate option for people trying to escape the dangers of Libya. Since the onset of the fighting in April, more than 6000 people have attempted to seek safety by crossing the Central Mediterranean. In the absence of any dedicated search and rescue response run by states, people’s lives are at risk at sea just as they are in Tripoli’s conflict areas.
Last year the Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run by MSF with our partner SOS Méditerranée, was forced out of the water following a sustained smear campaign led by Italy and supported by other EU governments. This week, Italy arrested the captain of a ship run by another non-governmental organisation, Sea Watch, after she disembarked 40 migrants in Italy following a standoff at sea.
Every time people are rescued by NGO or commercial ships, EU countries argue with the rescuers and score political points over them, instead of taking the shared responsibility needed to save lives. And Operation Sophia – the EU’s counter-smuggling operation which has also rescued thousands in the Mediterranean – is not in the water.
Against this backdrop, there is much the Foreign Secretary should be doing, alongside tweeting, to prevent further avoidable deaths.
Thousands of people are still trapped in detention centres in Libya. As a first priority, the government must support their immediate evacuation out of Libya on humanitarian grounds. Second, it must increase the UK’s commitment to resettle vulnerable refugees from Libya. Third, the UK must stop supporting the return of migrants to Libya and speak out against those who do. And finally, the UK must back dedicated search and rescue on the Mediterranean for those trying desperately to leave.
Last week’s events prove that there is no time to lose.
Vickie Hawkins is executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in the UK