20th May 2022

Libya 'abandoning migrants without water' in deserts

  • Kufra District, Libya. Many are being expelled from the city of al-Kufra in southeastern Libya and into Chad and Sudan (Photo: O.V.E.R.V.I.E.W.)
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Libya is forcing people across its land borders into 'no man's land' remote stretches of deserts without water, according to a UN rights expert.

"They appear linked to efforts to strengthen Libya's external border enforcement so as to prevent migrants from eventually arriving to Europe," said Benjamin Lewis from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Thursday (27 January).

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  • Thousands remain detained in Libyan prison camps (Photo:

Speaking to MEPs in the sub-committee on human rights, Lewis said the expulsions are being carried out by the Libyan department for combating illegal migration, also known as the DCIM.

It also runs a slew of detention centres rife with abuse amid documented reports of rape, killings and enforced disappearances.

"According to one Libyan official, DCIM is now and I quote, 'deporting more people faster than ever before,'" said Lewis.

The official DCIM figures indicate 7,500 have been expelled from Libya's external land borders in 2019 and 2020, many from the city of al-Kufra in southeastern Libya and into Chad and Sudan.

But Lewis says the true numbers are much higher, noting many include children and women entitled to protection under international law.

Some have simply been left abandoned, while others have been abducted and re-trafficked into Libya as victims of sexual violence, he said.

"We also took note of an increased presence of border brigades or, quote 'desert patrol units.' These are operating along Libya's land borders, particularly in the west of the country, near Algeria and Tunisia," he said.

Lewis said questions abound to what extent the EU delivery of vehicles, equipment and other tech to the DCIM and interior ministry may have been used to expel the people.

Two years ago, the commission delivered 30 off-road vehicles to Libya's ministry of interior to help with border management.

Armed militia units are known to operate within the ministry as well as in the ministry of defence. The commission had also in the past met with Libyan Coast Guard commanders in Brussels to discuss needs.

It has delivered buses, ambulances and boats to the guard , which last year intercepted and returned some 32,000 people at sea.

Some of those are being aggressively intercepted in Malta's search and rescue zone, as witnessed by EUobserver last summer.

The past month alone has seen an additional 6,000 interceptions, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Around 12,000 migrants are currently imprisoned in 27 Libyan detention centres, posing questions on the fate of the thousands of others.

Suki Nagra, a director at the UN mission in Libya, said many languish in secret or illegal detention facilities operated by armed groups.

"Overall, there's been little to no accountability for these crimes," she said, also speaking to the MEPs.

For its part, the European Union defended its role in Libya.

"We want to change the whole system to seek alternatives for detention," said Jose Antonio Sabadell, the EU's ambassador designated to Libya.

He noted that for the first time ever a camp for women and children in Libya will be guarded by female staff, "which will at least avoid some of the abuses."

He also pointed out that more than 65,000 people have been either taken back voluntarily to their countries of origin or to a safe place from Libya over the past five years.

"I think it's a very significant number," he told MEPs.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

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The Libyan Coast Guard intercepted a wooden boat of 30 people some 10 nautical miles inside Malta's search and rescue zone. But then suddenly let them go, allowing the Ocean Viking to perform its first rescue since leaving Marseille.

Libya to get new EU-funded boats despite crimes

The EU Commission is to deliver three new 'P150' patrol boats to the Libyan coast guard, despite a recent UN report citing possible crimes against humanity at Libyan detention centres.

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