Libya - Deadly Attack Highlights Disregard for Civilians

The scene near the detention centre in Tripoli.
press release

Tunis — The deaths of at least 44 migrants and asylum seekers in an airstrike on July 3, 2019 on a compound that includes a detention center in Tajoura, near Tripoli, Libya, is a foreseeable consequence of warring parties failing to adequately protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. They are also the result of the failure by the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli to evacuate detention centers located near the fighting and military objects. A credible and independent investigation should be carried out to determine responsibility for this attack and hold those responsible to account.

The strike should also press home the need for the EU to step up efforts to help end the nightmare of migrant detention in Libya, including by demanding an end to abusive detention by Libyan authorities. The EU should boost the resettlement of asylum seekers out of Libya, including directly to EU countries, and increase search and rescue operations at sea and disembarkation in a safe place outside Libya.

"Today's deadly airstrike is a tragic but foreseeable consequence of fighting among heavily armed factions with scant regard for civilian lives, whether Libyan or foreign," aid Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government in Tripoli's failure to release or evacuate the thousands of detained migrants in the area has left them like sitting ducks during the ongoing fighting."

Some 5,800 migrants are held in indefinite detention without charge in abhorrent conditions in facilities under the authority of the internationally recognized GNA. About 3,300 of them are in greater Tripoli, where GNA-linked forces have been battling forces known as the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Khalifa Hiftar, who is allied with a rival government based in the east of Libya.

The GNA accused the LNA of responsibility for the strike, a charge that an LNA spokesperson denied.

The Tajoura facility housed at least 600 men, women, and child migrants and asylum seekers at the time of attack, and is among the detention centers located near or adjacent to military facilities, at heightened risk of being in the line of fire. Shrapnel damaged the Tajoura center two months ago. Fighters allied with the GNA have reportedly obliged detained migrants to move and maintain weaponry, in likely violation of the laws of war.

The UN Human Rights Office has called for the immediate release of everyone held in migrant detention centers in Libya. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that migrants and asylum seekers rescued at sea while trying to reach Europe should not be forcibly returned to Libya, in view of the prevailing conditions for migrants there. While humanitarian agencies have facilitated the evacuation of hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers from detention centers near the battle lines, the Libyan Coast Guard has, since the beginning of 2019, intercepted at sea over 2,300 migrants and asylum seekers and returned them to detention in Libya.

When the Security Council meets July 3 in an emergency session devoted to Libya, Council members should support these positions taken by UN agencies and also demand an independent investigation into the attack, Human Rights Watch said.

"It shouldn't have taken this kind of tragedy, but now the EU should urgently press Libya to free all arbitrarily detained migrants and asylum seekers, and, at a minimum, immediately evacuate those held near the ongoing hostilities," Goldstein said. "We need to see robust search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean to minimize loss of life as people flee an increasingly desperate situation in Libya, an end to disembarkation in Libya, and an agreement to allow migrants and asylum seekers rescued at sea to land quickly and safely in Europe."

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