23.07.2021

Human rights and migrants in Libya, a conversation with activist Tariq Lamlum.

What about the human rights situation in Libya? We interviewed Tarik Lamloum from the Libyan NGO Belaady on this issue.

Mr. Tariq, you are one of the founders of the BELaady organization, and an advocate for the rights of migrants in Libya. FES interviewed Lamlum and discussed human rights and migrants’ situation in Libya.

 

1) What is the human rights situation in Libya in general, and for migrant men and women in particular?

For decades, Libya has found it difficult to establish the concept of human rights. Unfortunately, the culture that prevailed before 2011 due to the rule of one individual has entrenched the notion that the only rights are those allowed by the authorities and the government. After 2011, it was only a few months before this old culture came back to dominate anew, which led to the loss of many gains and dreams that those demanding change had tried to attain. Libya is now witnessing a decline in all forms of rights and freedoms, especially the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Today, we have even reached the point where we have to ask permission from the security authorities just to write my responses to this interview.

In light of the deterioration of human rights in Libya, the suffering of migrant men and women and asylum seekers and foreigners in general has intensified. In Libya, there is no legislation or fixed government looking out for their wellbeing and protecting their rights. They are even exploited, as the migration issue is often used for political bargaining, to the extent that certain cities and tribes in Libya compete to win the migration ministry when the cake of government portfolios and responsibilities is divided up.

 

2) Where do people residing or detained in camps in Libya come from? And what are their main motives for migration?

Migrant men and women come primarily from neighboring countries, such as Sudan, Niger, and Egypt, and secondarily from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria, and to a lesser extent Yemen. Their motives for migration and seeking asylum differ from one person to another. Some migrate to improve their living conditions, but the majority want to go to Europe. Those who find jobs and safety in Libya put off the idea of ​​migration for long periods, such as immigrants coming from Egypt, Chad, Sudan, and other non-conflict areas. As for asylum-seekers from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Syria (which are conflict areas), they wish to seek protection in one of the European Union (EU) countries, rather than remain in Libya. For Somalis, they often cannot work in Libya even if they want to, because they are not wanted in the Libyan labor market or within Libyan society, which is not accustomed to working with Somalis even though they are fluent in Arabic. Therefore, they wish to travel to Europe or to communicate with the High Commissioner to expedite their exit.

 

3) While the Coronavirus has been making headlines in Europe for more than a year, this virus is rarely talked about in the context of migration. Has the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic affected the conditions of migrants in Libya? If a change occurred in the conditions of migrants, when did this happen? What form did it take?

No accurate information or statistics exist regarding Coronavirus infections among migrants and asylum seekers in Libya, due to a lack of adequate medical and statistical staff. However, according to the numbers available, there was no outbreak of the pandemic among them. Regardless, they (migrants) suffer from health problems more problematic than the Coronavirus, including malnutrition; and the effects of the torture, kidnapping, and sexual assaults to which they are subjected during their journeys until they reach the detention centers.

Despite the Coronavirus pandemic, migrants in detention centers have enjoyed no governmental attention or INGO support. We have not seen, for example, any international aid related to Covid-19 provided to detainees. During our regular and frequent visits (as the BELaady team) to detention centers, we have not found, for example, a single mask provided by the Commission or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), even though we have information from reliable sources that the EU supported the IOM financially in order to improve the situation of detainees and buy protective supplies such as masks and sterilizers. These materials were handed over to the head of the Migration Authority, who prevented the IOM from providing the means of health protection on its own, so that it had to hand them over to the Authority, and he promised that he would distribute them to the migrants. But this did not happen. They were placed in storage facilities. During our visits to the Souq al-Khamees detention center near Tripoli, and Alzintan and Cyrene centers in eastern Libya, we found no one wearing a mask or any detainee who had received sterilization materials, despite the presence of INGO staff in these centers.

The reason for the head of the Migration Authority not agreeing to the distribution of protection means by the IOM is to prevent it from entering the centers and seeing the tragic conditions of migrants there. Despite this, we believe that both the EU (the donor) and the IOM are fully aware of these conditions, and of the fact that the aid does not reach its beneficiaries, but they take no action to change this situation for the better.

 

4) How can we imagine the situation of migrants in the Libyan camps? For example, access to food, clean water, health care, education, toilets, etc.

Until recently, we used to call them detention centers, but what is happening these days; especially after the end of the war, and the growing pressure on INGOs by the Libyan government; is that these centers have become collective punishment centers. It is no exaggeration to say that what I saw a few days ago, during my visit to a detention center frequented by EU-supported INGOs, was quite similar to the genocide camps we have heard about in history. We found around 70 women, most of them pregnant, with about 30 children with them, ranging in age from 9 months to 13 years, in a dark room with only one toilet. The door opens for them twice a day to provide them with a meal, which contains just one type of food in small quantities with no meat, vegetables, or nutrients. Guarding these centers are men only; there are no female guards at all. The only female member of staff who visits the detained women and their children is one female doctor from Doctors Without Borders.

 

5) In this context, what is the situation for women, children, and minors who travel alone (without parents) in particular? Is their suffering greater? Why?

Yes, women and girls - especially female minors from Nigeria and Somalia - suffer from weakness, malnutrition, kidnapping, and both physical and sexual assaults during their journeys, and at the various stages of asylum seeking in the Libyan desert, up until their arrival in the city of Bani Walid (in northwestern Libya, 180 km from Tripoli). Children and women are the most vulnerable to violence. They are tortured, and their families are forced to pay money to release them. They are held in warehouses not officially affiliated with any government authorities, though their locations and the people running them are well-known. Minors are often exploited through hard labor for very low wages.

Both UNHCR and the IOM have failed miserably to protect these children and minors, even within international detention centers affiliated with them. So far, minors are not separated from adults. We have personally witnessed cases of repeated assaults and rapes of minors in a government-affiliated detention facility. Despite the INGOs knowing and being informed about these assaults, they have taken no action about them. They have failed to act decisively with the Libyan authorities.

 

6) What gives hope to you and your country? What do you seek from the EU with regard to migration?

There was a glimmer of hope during the last few months, after successful efforts to stop the war, and now there are efforts to withdraw the mercenary forces and establish a unified government. But one government alone is not enough to ease pressure on migrants and asylum seekers, since the new government’s policies towards migrants and asylum seekers has not changed. They are still being rejected. Thus we hope the EU will strike a balance in dealing with Libya. For example, the EU could reconsider its relations with the actors on the ground and conduct a genuine examination of the needs, in a manner differing from the traditional methods. The EU is used to communicating with representatives of INGOs when assessing the needs on the ground to approve the projects to be implemented. It does not engage local activists or local NGOs active on the ground, such as the Libyan Red Crescent and the scouts teams, which have more experience and more accurate information about the situation, due to their direct and daily dealings with refugees and migrants.

 

7) What role can EU countries play to alleviate the suffering of migrants and uphold their rights and human rights in general in your country?

  • Stop supporting the Libyan Coast Guard until it ensures its efficiency, and condition its support on ensuring human rights in Libya.
  • Pressure the Libyan authorities to respect the conventions and covenants by which they are bound, such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, which regulates migration within the African continent; the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obliges them to protect children seeking protection; the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families; and the Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR). Respect for these agreements should be a precondition for any new bilateral agreements.
  • Provide and ensure real protection for minors and women, without merely relying on the International Commission for Migration. EU countries can, for example, speed up the opening of urgent humanitarian corridors to remove women and unaccompanied children in southern cities before they reach the coast and expose themselves to kidnapping, especially in the absence of any EU projects in the southern cities. Protection starts from the cities of the south, not in offices in the capital Tripoli.
  • Invest in economic and development projects in poor African countries, such as Sudan and Chad, in order to curb migration for economic reasons. With job opportunities, education, and basic living standards in migrants’ home countries, many children and women would opt against venturing into the Libyan desert. It is paradoxical that their needs and dreams are very simple, and could be achieved with projects less expensive than those intended to stop migration. For example: providing schools, drinking water, and doctors to treat them in their village. This is not difficult for the countries that are disturbed by the migrant influx.

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