Stuck between a gun and a hard place: Migrants in Libya face enduring calamities

African migrants stage a demonstration outside the headquarters of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the Siraj area of the Libyan capital Tripoli, calling for their repatriation, on October 9, 2021 [Getty Images]
5 min read
12 November, 2021

Starved, beaten, tortured, raped, forced into slavery. Piled up by the thousands in crumbly buildings without bathrooms or showers. A gruesome portrait emerges from the testimonies of those who passed through the Libyan detention camps – or as some called them, the labs of torture.

Migrants carried to these facilities have been through physical and psychological violence. Often, they suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of the abuses they received or witnessed.

Lybia remains a nightmare for tens of thousands of migrants who try to reach Europe. The breakdown in the judiciary system of the country led to chaos in which criminal groups, human traffickers, and political factions found a flourishing business.

"Over the years, a vast, heterogeneous and widespread network of migrant exploitation has been organised in Libya by criminal groups and militias, armed forces and police, supported by local gangs or individuals"

"Almost all migrants arrested in Libya endured kidnapping and torture either by officials or smugglers who used them as slaves," said Dr Peppe Cannella, a psychotherapist and board member of "Medici per i Diritti Umani" (MEDU), an NGO that provides psychological support to migrants in Italy.

According to the Italian NGO, between 2014 to 2020 at least 85 percent of migrants who came to Italy from Libya underwent torture and degrading treatment, including overcrowded places, food and sleep deprivation, and death.

"The main consequences for these people is PTSD or personality disturbance such as depression, anxiety, and anti-social behaviour. What we are witnessing in Libya is a systematic and institutionalised method of torture towards migrants.

"Physical abuse is so common that almost everybody recalls experiences in which they were cut with knives, tied to the roof with ropes, burned with boiling liquids.

"Overcrowded sites also play an important role in the insurgence of mental illness because the places where they are gathered are overcrowded in unbearable conditions, with no bathrooms and windows. Often, in complete darkness or with the lights on all the time," Dr Cannella explains.

Over the years, a vast, heterogeneous and widespread network of migrant exploitation has been organised in Libya by criminal groups and militias, armed forces and police, supported by local gangs or individuals.

The country, still divided by inner conflicts between factions, converted itself into a hub in which the exploitation of migrants has grown as a flourishing business and became the main source of income for many Libyans.

"I was taken to a dump room in Al-Khums prison, far from Tripoli, along with more than 300 people, with no space to lie down or sleep. The guards beat us every day with plastic tubes while tossing cold water on us," says Momoudu, a 17-year-old refugee from the Gambia. 

"Usually, they let small groups get out of the room to savagely beat them to extort money. Many people were seriously injured. I have seen some people lose their legs due to the violent beatings they received," Momoudu adds. 

Current Libyan legislation criminalises illegal entry into the country without any exception for asylum-seekers or refugees. The violation could lead to an indefinite deportation sentence, forced labour, or a fine of up to 1,000 Libyan dinars (around £550).


As underlined by numerous international NGO's, many migrants suspected of being illegal are kidnapped during house raids and detained at governmental facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, where they are locked up indefinitely awaiting deportation.

The Libyan authorities continue to dismiss the matter and avoid addressing the issue, despite numerous calls by the international community.

According to a report by Amnesty International, the government in Tripoli has failed "to hold members of those groups to account for their involvement in war crimes and human rights violations" and are "exacerbating impunity by integrating them into national institutions, relying on them for law enforcement and security".

Last October, thousands of migrants took the street in the capital demanding better treatment and more rights. However, the subsequent crackdown in response to the protests by the government in Qargaresh, a neighbour in Tripoli with a historical presence of asylum-seekers, shows the unwillingness to meet these requests.

"Once again, rather than address the situation, [the Prime Minister of Libya] Dadaiba has tried to use migrants as a tool to expand his political support and is using xenophobia to appeal to a wider sector of the population"

"Riots in the detention centres which led to the mass escape and the protests were fuelled by the horrible inhuman conditions inside the overcrowded facilities. Huge numbers of people are still detained indefinitely without any assurance by the state of the law," said Khalifa Abo Khraisse, a Libyan filmmaker and journalist specialising in migrants.

During the operation, more than 4,000 thousand people have been arrested, 15 wounded, and one killed while trying to escape. However, while the official media paints the operation as heroic, many questioned the real reasons behind the incursion.

"Although many of the asylum-seekers detained in the last raid in the Qargaresh area are registered at the UNCHR office, and some have already obtained the official paper to leave the country and get the chance to live a better life elsewhere, the Libyan government continue to neglect its international duties. Due to the poor management and the impulsive decisions of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dadaiba, the conditions worsen for thousands of refugees and migrants who remain in limbo," he added. 

The raids took place as part of what the authorities described as a security campaign against illegal immigration and drug smuggling.


However, the Interior Ministry, which led the security operation, did not indicate the arrest of any smugglers.

Instead, a government official said authorities would "deport as many as possible" of the migrants back to their countries of origin as part of a no-tolerance approach towards illegal immigration.

Qargaresh, a well-known centre for migrants and refugees, is located about 12 kilometres west of Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

The town has seen several waves of anti-immigrant crackdowns over the years, but activists described the latest wave as "the most violent in years."

"Once again, rather than address the situation, Dadaiba has tried to use migrants as a tool to expand his political support and is using xenophobia to appeal to a wider sector of the population," Khraisse concluded.

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East