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'This Attack Clearly Could Constitute a War Crime,' Says UN Envoy After at Least 44 Killed in Bombing of Libyan Migrant Detention Center

The air raid comes as refugees report being held in facilities with "raw sewage, piles of garbage, disease, maggots, and barely enough food to survive."


A deadly bombing of a migrant detention center in Libya highlighted the North African country's role in the global refugee crisis. (Photo: U.N. Geneva/Twitter)

The overnight bombing of a migrant detention center in Tajoura, Libya that killed at least 44 people and severely injured 130 more elicited sharp criticism from United Nations officials and drew global attention to the war-torn North African nation's role in the global refugee crisis.

"This brutal slaughter is also a sickening reminder of the deadly consequences of Libya and Europe's callous migration policies."
—Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International

"This attack clearly could constitute a war crime, as it killed by surprise innocent people whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter," Ghassan Salamé, head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), said in a statement Wednesday. "The absurdity of this ongoing war today has led this odious bloody carnage to its most hideous and most tragic consequences."

Salamé called on the international community "to denounce this crime and apply appropriate penalties on those who ordered, carried out, and provided arms for this operation in a flagrant violation to the international humanitarian law and the simplest humanitarian norms and values."

Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and recognized by the U.N., "blamed the raid on the forces of Libyan renegade General Khalifa Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has been fighting to seize Tripoli for the past three months," according to Al Jazeera.

Haftar's LNA "denied responsibility," The Guardian noted, "but only on Monday Haftar's air force commander Mohammed al-Manfour had warned that his forces would intensify air raids on Tripoli."

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) condemned the attack, emphasized the need for a full and independent investigation, and reiterated calls for "an immediate end to detention of migrants and refugees" in Libya. The organizations' joint statement said in part:

Tajoura held at least 600 refugees and migrants—including women and children. The airstrike that left scores dead, also left dozens injured. For that reason, we expect the final death toll to include many more victims.

Including those victims at Tajoura, some 3,300 migrants and refugees remain arbitrarily detained inside and around Tripoli in conditions that can only be described as inhumane. Moreover, migrants and refugees face increasing risks as clashes intensify nearby. These centers must be closed.

This attack, said the statement, "speaks to the danger both IOM and UNHCR have warned over returning migrants and refugees to Libya after their interception or rescue on the Mediterranean Sea."

Charlie Yaxley, UNHCR's global spokesperson for Africa and the Mediterranean/Libya, added in a tweet: "This is a despicable tragedy that never should have happened. We warned about this two months ago. No action was taken. People have paid the price with their life."

Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, issued a statement Wednesday urging the International Criminal Court to immediately investigate the attack as a possible war crime.

"This brutal slaughter is also a sickening reminder of the deadly consequences of Libya and Europe's callous migration policies," Mughrabi said. "Their cooperation to stem the flow of migrants and refugees means that instead of being offered safe routes out of the country, thousands of people intercepted in the central Mediterranean are returned to Libya where they are arbitrarily detained in centers where they are exposed to torture and mortal danger."


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The air raid in the Tripoli suburb comes as human rights groups continue to decry the conditions of the country's migrant detention centers, where refugees "say they have been held for months amid raw sewage, piles of garbage, disease, maggots, and barely enough food to survive," as The Associated Press reported Sunday.

The AP interviewed several people currently detained in Libya—a key departure point for the flood of African refugees who have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, in spite of the fierce opposition to their arrival from right-wing European politicians and citizens.

"Our life is worse and terrible from day to day," wrote an Eritrean migrant who is among 700 held in the detention center run by one of Libya's militias out of a complex dominated by a hangar near the western town of Zintan.

Others who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution said in texts to the AP that at least 22 migrants have died since September—a figure confirmed by United Nations and Doctors Without Borders aid workers—and that at least 100 migrants were sick with disease, mainly tuberculosis. Some migrants said the center includes 100 minors who live side by side with adults.

"We need emergency evacuation from Zintan," one told the AP. "We suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally."

In response to the overnight air raid, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—the medical humanitarian group also known as Doctors Without Borders—doubled down on previous calls for an evacuation.

"There are no safe places in Libya to take these migrants and refugees in order to remove them from the risk of conflict," Sam Turner, MSF head of mission in Libya, reportedly said at a press conference in June. "This is why we are urgently calling for their humanitarian evacuation."

In a statement on Twitter Wednesday, MSF medical coordinator for Libya Dr. Prince Alfani called the bombing "a horrific tragedy that could have been avoided."

"What is needed now is not empty condemnation but the immediate evacuation of all refugees and migrants held in detention out of Libya."
—Dr. Prince Alfani, MSF

"What is needed now is not empty condemnation but the immediate evacuation of all refugees and migrants held in detention out of Libya," Alfani added. "The reality is for every person evacuated or resettled this year, more than twice as many have been forcibly returned to Libya by the E.U.-supported Libyan Coastguard. Clearly today inaction and complacency has needlessly cost the lives of more vulnerable refugees and migrants."

Elinor Raikes, regional director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Europe and North Africa, concurred: "People caught in detention centers must be evacuated to a place of safety outside Libya and search and rescue operations at sea immediately restored to protect those fleeing the violence. A ceasefire is urgently needed. European governments and the U.S. must recognize their role in bringing the warring parties back to the negotiating table."

Amnesty's Mughrabi declared that "this attack should be a wake-up call for E.U. states to end their shameful policies outsourcing migration control to Libya in their bid to reduce the number of refugees and migrants arriving on European shores."

"They can no longer turn a blind eye to the inhuman conditions, torture, rape, and other abuse refugees and migrants face, or their failure to support refugees to reach safety by offering sufficient resettlement places," Mughrabi said. "E.U. member states should urgently ensure safe routes out of Libya for refugees and migrants trapped in the country and ensure that refugees and migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean are not returned to Libya."

This post has been updated with comment from Amnesty International and the IRC.

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