By Udo C. Enwereuzor
Since 2014, Libya has been governed by two parallel governments – the Libyan House of Representatives based in Tobruk and supported by Gen. Haftar’s LNA and, the U.N.-backed, Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
On July 2, 2019, a building in the Tajoura detention center for immigrants and asylum seekers on the outskirts of Tripoli, was hit by an airstrike, killing 53 and wounding 130 mainly-African migrants and refugees held there. This detention facility, which housed approximately 600 migrants, is located inside a military compound controlled by a militia group that responds to the Government of National Accord. Many, including aid agencies and independent analysts, say the attack was the work of the LNA which, for weeks, had been carrying out air raids against various targets in the area.
The U.N. called for an independent investigation to establish responsibility for the attack. It said the attack could constitute a war crime, highlighting that the coordinates of the detention center are known to both rival forces. Neither of the two governments, the U.N.-backed GNA led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by General Khalifa Haftar, have acknowledged any role in the attack.
The current wave of violence in Tripoli began on April 4th when the eastern-based forces of Gen. Haftar’s LNA launched an offensive to dislodge the GNA from the capital, in a push to gain control of the seats of power in Tripoli, in particular, the Central Bank of Libya and to disband armed groups that support the GNA. The attack prompted a countermobilization of armed forces that operate under the command of the GNA.
While a number of factors have driven the Libyan conflict ever since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the current clash that flared up in early April this year seems to have had two prominent drivers.
The first important factor is competition over oil revenues held by the Central Bank of Libya, specifically access to and management of state income accruing from oil exports. The Tripoli head office, as the only internationally recognized Central Bank of Libya, receives revenues accruing from oil sales. The Benghazi branch, which funds the east-based LNA government of Haftar, has no access to such revenues.
The eastern authorities have resorted to issuing almost $30 billion in promissory notes processed by east-based commercial banks. As a result of the split in the Central Bank, a dispute arose between the two governments in Tripoli and Benghazi over how state revenues accruing mainly from oil sales were to be allocated. According to the International Crisis Group, both sides have since taken measures that have widened the rift.
A second important driving factor of this latest round of fighting is the support given to both sides by different foreign governments that have, in some cases, greater interests in regional power balance than in Libya as such. The LNA receives support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France while the GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar among governments and various armed groups including, according to some sources, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In his remarks to the Security Council in late-May, on the activities of the U.N. Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL), the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General and head of UNSMIL notes, “Many countries are providing weapons to all parties in the conflict without exception. The amount and sophistication of these weapons are already causing greater numbers of casualties. Without a robust enforcement mechanism, the arms embargo into Libya will become a cynical joke. Some nations are fueling this bloody conflict; the United Nations should put an end to it.”
This kind of support has fueled – on both sides – the conviction that a military victory can be achieved in the field, thereby thwarting U.N. efforts to bring the parties to a negotiated solution.
The internationally recognized Tripoli Central Bank has taken measures that have seriously limited the ability of its former Benghazi branch to function, effectively squeezing the LNA and the parallel regime in Tobruk financially. The exclusion of the Benghazi bank from the national automated system, higher currency exchange rates, and diminishing currency reserves have plunged the LNA government into a fiscal crisis.
Taken together, these three developments have put the east-based commercial banks into an acute crisis because their reserves deposited with the Central Bank have since shrunk close to the minimum required by law, if not already run out. The decision by the LNA to launch the offensive to take control of the Central Bank in Tripoli in early April, 10 days before a U.N.-sponsored National Conference scheduled to bring together the two governments and other stakeholders, to discuss a possible roadmap to uniting Libyan institutions, may have been motivated by the financial crisis looming over Benghazi.
Caught in the Crossfire
The July airstrike against the detention center in Tajoura exemplifies the exposure of immigrants and asylum seekers to passing through Libya on their way to Europe, besides the widely documented abuse they experience in detention facilities and along the migratory route.
Soon after the Tajoura airstrike, the UNHCR relocated 55 “most vulnerable” refugees. On July 10th, the authorities closed the center and evacuated the 482 survivors of the attack to a UNHCR Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) in Tripoli, normally used for hosting migrants and refugees who apply for voluntary return to their countries of origin. The GDF is said now to be hosting more than 1,000 people and is badly overcrowded.
There are between 17 to 35 official and unofficial detention facilities, the majority of them being official facilities under the control of the Libyan Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM). Some of the unofficial centers are run by militias which are aligned with either of the two governments.
According to the latest report presented by the U.N. Secretary-General to the Security Council, there are 4,900 refugees and migrants currently held in detention centers run by the government and militias aligned with it. Of these, about 3,500 are held in areas where active fighting is taking place in and around Tripoli. An additional unknown number of persons are reportedly held in insecure situations, in other informal detention facilities not aligned with the GNA.
The U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, called for the immediate release and evacuation of refugees and migrants from places of detention in Libya. The GNA promised to release those detained in facilities in the areas affected by fighting. Unfortunately, shortly after evacuating the detainees who survived the airstrike at the Tajoura center, the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) filled the center again by disembarking 90 people intercepted at sea at the same detention facility.
As late as September 19th, a group of 103 migrants intercepted at sea by the LCG were moved into another detention center in Tripoli. The migrants tried to resist being locked the in center by trying to run away. In reaction, armed guards started shooting with live ammunition, and a Sudanese man was shot in the stomach. The U.N. agency for migration (IOM), whose staff witnessed the incident, condemned the killing and the use of live bullets against unarmed vulnerable civilians – men, women and children alike – as unacceptable under any circumstances.
Migrants and refugees continued to be deprived of their liberty and arbitrarily detained in official and unofficial detention facilities. They are subjected to torture and sexual violence, abducted for ransom and extortion; and are victims of forced labor and unlawful killings. They continue to be detained in overcrowded, inhuman and degrading conditions, with insufficient food, water and medical care and very poor sanitation. These serious violations are perpetrated by a variety of actors, including government officials, members of armed militias, smugglers, traffickers and members of criminal gangs.
Trafficking and Forced Labor
The U.N. report expressed serious concerns over the transfer of migrants rescued or intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard to unofficial detention centers in the areas controlled by the GNA. It notes that hundreds of rescued migrants who were reported to have been sent to detention centers were later listed by the authorities as missing.
It is believed that they may have been trafficked or sold to smugglers or people who subject them to forced labor. Following these reports, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in early June this year, called upon the Government of National Accord to immediately launch an independent investigation to locate the missing people.
According to the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM), a total of 5,089 people had voluntarily returned to 26 countries of origin across Africa and Asia as of June 2019 as part of the IOM voluntary return program. Many migrants or asylum seekers cannot afford to return home, in spite of the threats and hardships encountered, given the financial costs already incurred for the journey to Europe.
Role of European Migration Policies
The suffering immigrants and asylum seekers go through trying to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean are not solely the result of conflict in Libya. European Union migration policies, in particular, its border control policies and the decision to have shifted the burden of reception of migrants and asylum seekers to intermediary countries, without regard for the internal situation in such countries.
EU’s support for measures that prolong the detention of migrants in Libya rather than let them into Europe, smacks of intolerable cynicism and indifference to human life. In particular, its insistence that Libya, amidst this debilitating internal conflict, declare and operate a monitoring and rescue zone in the Mediterranean, constitutes an abdication of responsibility to save the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in distress at sea.
Udo C. Enwereuzor is a founding member of SOS Méditerranée, served on its board until mid-2017 and continues as an active member, writing this article from Italy in September 2019 after witnessing the situation first-hand.
photo credit: Federica Mameli for SOS Méditerranée