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BREAKING NEWS

'They sprayed the room with bullets': migrants in Libyan detention centres living in fear

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A fighter loyal to Libya's GNA on the outskirts of Tripoli on May 16, 2019.
A fighter loyal to Libya's GNA on the outskirts of Tripoli on May 16, 2019. -
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REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
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Humanitarian organisations are raising the alarm about the dire situation for migrants and refugees stuck in detention centres in and around Tripoli, where heavy clashes have been ongoing for the past six weeks, and demand they be evacuated from Libya as soon as possible.

Migrants and refugees intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting the illegal crossing to Europe are taken to Libya, as per a deal struck in 2016 between the European Union and the North African country. They are then kept in detention centres to await repatriation or deportation.

About 20 such detention centres are thought exist in the country. Tripoli and its surroundings count five of them but they host about half of the 6,000 people detained in such centres across Libya.

Often foreign nationals with nowhere else to go or anyone to turn to, they are particularly exposed to the fighting between the forces loyal to the Tripoli-based UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and those who support the eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) led by the rebel general Khalifa Haftar

NGOs including Human Rights Watch (HWR) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have condemned reports of torture, deprivation of food and medical care, extortion and sexual violence at the detention centres and have warned that conditions have grown direr since the LNA launched an offensive in early April to capture Tripoli.

READ MORE: Military assault on Tripoli is "in public's interest', says Libyan rebel group

'Sprayed the room with bullets'

Detainees at a centre in Tajoura, an eastern suburb of Tripoli, told HWR that they have been forced to repair military vehicles at a nearby militia facility, and to load, unload, and clean weapons.

The Qasr Ben Geshir detention centre, about 24 kilometres south of Tripoli, was attacked by armed men on April 23. It remains unclear who carried out the attack and how many were impacted although several people are thought to have died and dozens are believed to have been injured.

Munir, an Eritrean asylum seeker, and his son saw the attack first hand.

"People with arms came to us and wanted to take our cellphones and our money. We were divided into three groups," he recounted to Euronews.

"In the first room, they took the phones and money. In the second room, where a group of Christians were praying with a priest, the armed men barged in and told them to stop. They said they wouldn't and that's when they started to shoot," he carried on.

"Eighteen or 20 people were injured by bullets. People began screaming. And then the took their machine guns and just sprayed the room with bullets," he added.

Munir and his family escaped the facility and were given refuge at a school-turned-shelter in the centre of Tripoli. He hopes to take his family to "a safe country where my children can get an education."

"My only ambition is to reach a safe country where I can speak freely, and express myself. But if it was my choice, I would go to United States, Canada or England," he added.

'Not built to house people'

Between April 4, when the offensive started, and April 25, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) evacuated four detention centres, including Qasr Ben Geshir, but detainees are taken to other, more secure, detention centres.

MSF is demanding that they are instead evacuated out of the country.

"Detention centres were not built to house people. They’re often warehouses that have now been used for the storage of people instead of for goods," Sam Turner, MSF's head of Mission for Libya, told Euronews.

"We sometimes call the cells, hangars, due to being a big, long, open rooms where hundreds of people are packed in and locked inside. People are sleeping on concrete floors with sometimes a very thin mattress with very little access to the outside world," he detailed.

1.6 million

The World Health Organisation estimated early last week that at least 454 people had been killed and 2,150 were injured since Haftar launched his offensive on April 4.

The UN's Support Mission in Libya (USMIL) and the EU once again called for a cease-fire last week, warning the parties involved that "indiscriminate attacks on civilians & civilian infrastructure may amount war crimes."

But fighting over the weekend claimed the lives of an additional 50 people, local sources told Euronews' Anelise Borges.

According to UNICEF, a UN agency for the protection of children, the seven years of protracted conflict have affected 1.6 million people, with half of them, including 241,000 children, needing humanitarian assistance.

READ MORE: Clashes on outskirts of Libya's capital Tripoli kill 15