Two Syrians walk along a fence near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, November 30, 2016. Syrians who arrived in Turkey since late 2017 have been unable to register for temporary protection and receive basic services.

© 2016 Umit Bektas/Reuters
(Istanbul) – Turkish authorities in Istanbul and nine provinces on or near the Syrian border have stopped registering all but a handful of recently arrived Syrian asylum seekers. The suspension is leading to unlawful deportations, coerced returns to Syria, and the denial of health care and education.

The European Commission has recently praised Turkey’s asylum system and plans to release the second batch of €3 billion under its March 2016 migration deal which includes support for refugees in Turkey. European Union institutions and governments have stayed publicly silent on the suspension and other refugee abuses committed by Turkey, suggesting their primary concern is to halt the movement of asylum seekers and migrants from Turkey to the EU.

“While the EU supports Turkey to deter asylum seekers from reaching Europe, it’s turning a blind eye to Turkey’s latest steps to block and discourage people fleeing Syria,” said Gerry Simpson, associate refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. “But forcing Syrians who manage to get past Turkey’s border guards to live in legal limbo only risks driving them underground and onward to the EU.”

Syrian refugees queue for food aid in Gaziantep, Turkey on May 20, 2016. Turkey’s suspension of Syrian refugee registration blocks them from receiving such aid.

© 2016 Kyodo/ AP Images
The suspension of registration is Turkey’s latest effort to deny new asylum seekers protection. Over the past three years, Turkey has sealed off its border with Syria, while Turkish border guards continue to carry out mass summary pushbacks and to kill and injure Syrians as they try to cross.

Between early 2011 and the end of May 2018, Turkey had registered almost 3.6 million Syrians, making it the world’s largest refugee hosting country. That generosity does not absolve it, or its international partners, of the duty to help newly arrived asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. 

In mid-May 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 Syrians in Turkey’s Hatay province about their attempts to register for a temporary protection permit in Hatay, Gaziantep, and Istanbul provinces. A permit protects Syrians from arrest and the risk of deportation. It also entitles them to get health care and education, to work, and to seek social assistance, including the EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net for the most vulnerable Syrians.

Syrians said Turkish police deported them in groups of up to 20 people for not having a permit and that hospitals and schools refused to take them in without permits. Some said they returned to Syria so they, or their relatives, could get urgent medical care. Others said they decided to return to Syria because only some family members had been able to register. All said, they lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation and severely restricted their movement to avoid the police.

Turkey is bound by the international customary law rule of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone in any manner whatsoever to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. This includes asylum seekers, who are entitled to have their claims fairly adjudicated and not be summarily returned to places where they fear harm. Turkey may not coerce people into returning to places where they face harm by denying them legal status or access to essential services.

On October 30, 2017, the Hatay governor’s office said that to discourage smugglers from helping Syrians enter Turkey through Hatay, the province would no longer register newly arriving Syrians for temporary protection permits. In early February 2018, Turkey’s Interior Ministry said Istanbul province would also no longer register Syrians.

Eight other provinces on or near the Syrian border have also suspended registration for newly arriving Syrians since late 2017 or early 2018, according to three agencies working closely with Syrian refugees, as well as a European Commission official and a Turkish public official who previously worked on migration issues. The provinces are Adana, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Mardin, Mersin, Osmaniye, and Şanlıurfa.


© 2018 DigitalGlobe and © 2018 Human Rights Watch

Since late August 2015, only registered Syrians who obtain a special travel permit have been allowed to travel within Turkey. In practice, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers enter Turkey irregularly through the few remaining gaps in Turkey’s border wall in Hatay province. Blocked from registering there, they are unable to lawfully leave Hatay province and travel to other provinces where registration has not been closed. This forces them to live illegally in Hatay province, or to use smugglers to reach other parts of Turkey, risking arrest and deportation.

According to three confidential sources, Turkey has rejected proposals for a new system that would allow Syrians arriving in Hatay, and to a far lesser extent in other border provinces, to register in other parts of Turkey where fewer refugees live.

Refugee agencies told Human Rights Watch that Turkey’s strict controls on international and local refugee agencies prevent them from finding and helping unregistered Syrians. This lack of aid agency monitoring means that there are no statistics or estimates on the numbers of Syrians denied registration, deported, or refused urgently needed services.

In response to a June 13 letter presenting the Human Rights Watch findings, the migration authorities in Ankara denied that any of the country’s 81 provinces, including Hatay and Istanbul, had suspended registration of Syrians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Human Rights Watch that as of mid-May, the authorities had reassured them that registration of Syrians was ongoing, including in Hatay and Istanbul. Other aid agencies that support refugees say that the authorities in the 10 provinces have only continued to process Syrians pre-registered at the time of the suspension, and to register urgent medical cases referred from Syria and babies born to registered Syrians in Turkey. Two refugee aid agencies also said that in some cases they have managed to convince the authorities in Hatay and Osmaniye provinces to register particularly vulnerable unregistered Syrians.

In early 2018, the authorities in Hatay opened a new registration center in Antakya. Representatives of three aid agencies and two Turkish security personnel working in Antakya said the center is exclusively for unregistered Syrians to request help to return to Syria, while registered Syrians can request help to return at other migration authority-run centers.

Turkey does not allow any independent monitoring of whether unregistered Syrians signing up for return are in fact returning voluntarily or whether they are effectively being coerced. In contrast, Turkey does allow independent monitoring of some registered Syrians’ decision to return to Syria.

Turkey should protect the basic rights of all newly arriving Syrians, regardless of registration status, and register those denied registration since late 2017. The European Commission and EU member states with embassies in Turkey should support Turkey to register and protect Syrians and press Turkey to allow all agencies working for refugees to freely assist and help protect all Syrians, including all unregistered Syrians.

“Unregistered Syrians in Turkey may be conveniently out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind,” Simpson said. “EU states and the commission should speak up and support all Syrians in Turkey, not just those who got in before Turkey started driving them underground.”

For more details about Turkey’s suspension of Syrian asylum seeker registration, please see below.

Asylum Seeker Registration

The first Syrian refugees fled to Turkey in early 2011 and in the subsequent three-and-a-half years, Turkey adopted an ad hoc approach to their registration, without conferring a clear legal status with related rights. Although Turkey ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the country maintains a geographical limitation that excludes anyone not originally from a European country from full refugee recognition. That means it does not fully grant asylum to people fleeing violence or persecution in Syria and any other non-European country.

In 2013, Turkey adopted its own legal framework on the protection of asylum seekers and refugees. In October 2014, Turkey also adopted a regulation under which it grants Syrians temporary protection. As of June 28, 2018, Turkey said it had registered 3,562,523 people under the regulation. Registered Syrians are entitled to assistance. Even though the regulation says Syrians who fail to register will not be deported to Syria and will only face an “administrative fine,” Human Rights Watch found that unregistered Syrians have been deported for not having temporary protection permits.

The Hatay governor’s office and the interior minister said registration has been suspended for newly arriving Syrians in Hatay and Istanbul. Refugee aid agencies and Syrians in Hatay’s main city, Antakya, told Human Rights Watch that police carried out mass arrests of Syrians in November and early December, just after registration was suspended.

Five sources told Human Rights Watch that since late 2017 and early 2018, migration authorities in eight other border provinces followed suit and turned away all newly arriving Syrians seeking registration.

As of June 28, seven of the provinces that suspended registration were in the top 10 provinces hosting Syrians: Adana, Gaziantep, Hatay, Istanbul, Kilis, Mersin, and Şanlıurfa. Together they were sheltering 2,422,804 registered Syrians, or 68 percent of the total in Turkey. The other three – Kahramanmaraş, Mardin, and Osmaniye – were sheltering 235,549, or just under seven percent.

Aid agencies say that, in practice, the authorities in affected provinces continued to process Syrians pre-registered at the time of the suspension and to register people with urgent medical needs referred from Syria. They also continued to register babies born to registered Syrians in Turkey, an estimated 306 each day. Agencies with first-hand knowledge of the suspension of registration in the 10 provinces say the registration of these Syrians may explain the claim authorities made to Human Rights Watch that eight of the provinces on or near the border registered a total of 116,059 Syrians between November 1 and June 20.

One refugee aid agency with close knowledge of registration procedures in all of Turkey’s provinces told Human Rights Watch that in a few exceptional cases, authorities in Hatay and Osmaniye province have registered children in urgent need of medical care, together with one caregiver. Another refugee assistance agency that sometimes deals with unregistered Syrians said that between late 2017 and late April 2018, it had convinced the Hatay authorities to register a few dozen newly arrived Syrians on an exceptional basis because they had specific needs, but that even then it was a “headache” to get them through police checkpoints to registration offices. Agencies estimate that as of mid-May, the total number of such vulnerable cases of unregistered Syrians whom the authorities have registered on an exceptional basis was in the low hundreds.

Turkey’s travel permit system for registered Syrians prohibits unregistered Syrians from traveling from border provinces to register elsewhere. Seven Syrians told Human Rights Watch they paid smugglers to drive them from Antakya, in Hatay province, to Istanbul to register. But security officials at migration authority offices in Istanbul told them registration had been suspended for newly arriving Syrians.

UNHCR and some diplomats in Turkey told Human Rights Watch they have been encouraging Turkey’s Directorate General for Migration Management to adopt a referral system under which authorities in Hatay, or other border provinces where Syrians first arrive, would pre-register Syrians and then refer them to other provinces where fewer Syrians live to register. Some EU member states have proposed that if such a system were to be adopted, the EU should help support job-creation for Syrians and Turkish citizens in the provinces to which Syrians are referred. But all attempts to convince Turkey to set up a referral system have failed.

Consequences of Suspended Registration

In mid-May 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 Syrian asylum seekers in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, and the first city most Syrians reach after being smuggled across the closed Turkish border. They said the authorities in Antakya, the nearby town of Reyhanli, and in Gaziantep province had refused to register them during the first few months of 2018. They also described how not having a temporary protection permit – or “kimlik,” as it is popularly called (a Turkish shorthand for identification card) – had affected them. Human Rights Watch explained the purpose of the interviews, gave assurances of anonymity, and obtained interviewees’ consent to describe their experiences.

All said they were turned away from registration offices at least twice. Only three said they managed to register after brokers bribed registration officials between US$300 and $500.

Most said officials simply said “no more kimliks here” or “no one gets a kimlik” and told them to leave. Two said they also tried to register in Gaziantep in April, but that saw a sign on the office that said “no kimliks.”

Four said that only some members of their family had been registered, leaving the rest in legal limbo and that as a result, the entire family was contemplating returning to Syria. One man said his sick wife was given permission to enter Turkey for emergency medical treatment in Antakya, and was allowed to register there, together with their newborn baby. When he and their five other children, aged 6 to 14, managed to enter Turkey and tried to register in Antakya, they were turned away.

Three Syrians said that Turkish police had previously summarily deported them to Syria for not having a temporary protection permit. One, a 22-year-old man from Aleppo governorate, said he entered Turkey in early April and was refused registration in Antakya. In early May, he said, police stopped him at about 8 a.m. near the Antakya bus station and asked for his permit. When he said he tried to register, but had been turned away, the police drove him to a local police station, recorded his personal details, and then drove him and about 20 other unregistered Syrians to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and deported them. He said 15 of the 20 told him they had been caught without temporary protection permits in Istanbul and the other five said they had just entered Turkey a few days earlier and were arrested after arriving at a smuggler’s house in Antakya. A few days later, he managed to return to Turkey with smugglers.

Another former deportee, a 28-year-old man from Idlib, said he and his brother entered Turkey together in January and were denied registration in Antakya. He said his brother traveled with a smuggler to Istanbul to find work there, but Turkish police arrested him on May 17 and the next day, took him to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and deported him.

On May 22, Human Rights Watch spoke to a 31-year-old man from Hama who said the authorities in Antakya had arrested his brother a few hours earlier, were holding him in the new center for unregistered Syrians to sign up to return to Syria, and said they were about to deport him. Human Rights Watch alerted UNHCR, which intervened and prevented the deportation.

Human Rights Watch interviewed four Syrians at the newly established center for unregistered Syrians who wish to sign up for return to Syria. They decided to go back because their relatives had been denied urgent medical care, or because some family members who arrived after registration was suspended could not register.

Two Syrians said they heard from other Syrians in Antakya about many cases in which the wives of men who had been deported told Turkish authorities they planned to go back to Syria because they and their children could not survive alone in Turkey.

All of the 29 other unregistered Syrians interviewed said they lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation and said they heard of many cases involving the deportation of unregistered Syrians. Eight said they reduced their movements to a minimum, often staying at home for days at a time. A 17-year-old boy who said he never left his uncle’s house in Antakya out of fear of arrest said “this feels like prison.”

Three unregistered Syrians said they regularly use Syrian-owned driving services which use back roads to avoid police checkpoints or informal police stop-and-search patrols in Antakya.

Nine said they attempted to get medical treatment in clinics and hospitals in Antakya, but had been refused treatment because they were not registered. Four others said they did not even try to access medical care, because they heard others were turned away, and because they were afraid local hospitals would call the police to arrest them for not having a permit.

A 27-year-old woman from Idlib province seeking cancer treatment said two hospitals in Antakya refused to treat her because she did not have a permit.

A 34-year-old, eight months’ pregnant woman from Aleppo, with four children all born by caesarean section, said she was too afraid to go to the local hospital to ask for a checkup and prepare for her delivery, because she had been told hospitals turn away unregistered Syrians and was afraid of being arrested and returned to Syria.

Similarly, a 31-year-old woman whose entire family was refused registration in March said her husband was extremely sick with a serious lung condition, but he would not go to a hospital out of fear of being arrested and deported. She said he never left the house and lived in constant fear of being discovered.

A nongovernmental organization working with Syrians in Hatay province said that during the first few months of 2018, they heard of dozens of cases of Syrians in Antakya seeking emergency medical care, many of them pregnant women, who were turned away by hospitals because they had been denied registration.

Six Syrians interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their children were unable to go to school, because schools would only take registered Syrians.

Nowhere to Turn for Help

The Turkish authorities consider Syrians denied registration to be in the country unlawfully. Nongovernmental groups working with refugees said the government only allows them to work with lawfully present asylum seekers and refugees.

Six organizations working with refugees in Turkey’s provinces on the Syrian border – which asked to remain anonymous for the staff’s security – said Turkey strictly controls and monitors their work in various ways.

Some said they must get special permission to assess registered Syrians’ assistance needs or to visit registered Syrians’ homes, in some cases in the presence of staff from the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. The agencies said the rules are applied in an ad hoc and unpredictable way, depending on the local authorities, and they are never certain of what refugee outreach activities are allowed.

As a result, they said, they found it difficult to identify Syrians blocked from registration procedures, including the most vulnerable, for example those in urgent need of medical or other care. They also said the situation in Hatay province – through which almost all newly arriving Syrians using smugglers enter the country due to continued gaps in the border wall – is particularly sensitive.

Because of the restrictions imposed by the Turkish authorities, aid agencies said they cannot proactively identify unregistered Syrian refugees. At best, they can only react if they are made aware of unregistered Syrians who are seeking help, or if they come across them by chance. They said they sometimes raise the most vulnerable of such cases with the authorities in the hope that they will allow those in urgent need to register.

One agency working in the border areas said: “It’s very simple, we can’t just reach out to registered or unregistered Syrians. We need approval for everything and we’d never get approval to help unregistered Syrians.” Another agency worker said: “We have repeatedly asked the authorities for permission to do protection outreach work, but we’ve been refused every time.”

Agencies said their extremely limited contact with unregistered Syrians means they can neither estimate how many unregistered Syrians now live in Hatay and other provinces, nor the extent to which the registration suspension has led to deportation and denial of service access. EU member states and other donors funding Syrian refugee assistance and protection projects in Turkey therefore don’t know the extent to which Turkey’s registration suspension is excluding Syrians from receiving help.

European Union Remains Silent

EU member states and the European Commission have remained publicly silent on Turkey’s registration suspension, as they have on Turkey’s long-standing abuses against Syrian asylum seekers at the border.

Turkey’s suspension of registration could drive many Syrians underground and onward to the EU, or coerce them into going back to Syria. The suspension, Turkey’s ongoing border abuses, and its recent abuses against Afghan asylum seekers means that any attempts to return Syrians from Greece to Turkey is also likely to be met with significant resistance by lawyers challenging return attempts on the grounds that Turkey is not a safe third country to which to return asylum seekers.

On April 17, the European Commission released its latest update on whether Turkey is meeting the EU’s criteria for becoming an EU member state. As part of its assessment of Turkey’s asylum system, the commission said: “There have been reports of alleged expulsions, returns and deportations of Syrian nationals, in contradiction of the non-refoulement principle,” without going into any further details or citing the sources.

In March, the European Commission promised to release the second batch of €3 billion under its March 2016 deal with Turkey. Under the deal, the EU maintains that Turkey is a safe country to which to return Syrian asylum seekers. In fact, Turkey does not meet the EU safe third country criteria.


Turkey should resume temporary protection registration for all newly arriving Syrians and register those denied access to registration since late 2017. If necessary, Turkey should pre-register Syrians in its provinces on the Syrian border and require Syrians to move to, and live in, other provinces with fewer Syrians. In the meantime, Turkey should instruct all medical facilities to provide emergency medical treatment to any Syrian in need, regardless of registration status. Schools should also take in Syrian children pending their registration. All Turkish public officials should refer unregistered Syrians to the nearest registration center.

Turkey should also allow all refugee agencies working with Syrians to actively work to identify unregistered Syrians, help them access registration procedures, and raise with the authorities all cases of unregistered Syrians deported to Syria or denied access to health care and education.

To help ensure protection for Syrians in Turkey, the European Commission and EU member states with embassies in Turkey should press Turkey to resume registration of all newly arriving Syrians and guarantee their access to health care and education in line with existing policies. If Turkey requires help to resume registration, they should respond generously. They should also press Turkey to allow all agencies working with refugees to freely carry out protection monitoring work throughout Turkey to identify and assist unregistered Syrians and to publicly report on any abuses, including forced return to Syria, and denial of assistance.

Finally, the European Commission should proactively seek information and publicly report on credible accounts of killings, injuries, and mass deportations by Turkish security forces at the Syrian border, including in its regular reports on Turkey’s accession process and the European Agenda on Migration.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Turkish soldier surveys the border line between Turkey and Syria near the city of Kilis, March 2, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Murad Sezer
(Brussels) – Turkish security forces have routinely intercepted hundreds, and at times thousands, of asylum seekers at the Turkey-Syria border since at least December 2017 and summarily deported them to the war-ravaged Idlib governorate in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Turkish border guards have shot at asylum seekers trying to enter Turkey using smuggling routes, killing and wounding them, and have deported to Idlib newly arrived Syrians in the Turkish town of Antakya, 30 kilometers from the Syrian border.

The Russian-Syrian military alliance’s December offensive against anti-government forces in Idlib has displaced almost 400,000 civilians, according to the UN. They have joined more than 1.3 million others trapped inside Idlib in insecure, overcrowded camps, and in makeshift camps in fields near the closed Turkish border where they are under constant threat of attack and lack food, clean water, shelter, health care, and aid. At a March 26, 2018 summit meeting in Bulgaria, the European Union should press Turkey to allow Syrian civilians fleeing fighting to seek protection inside Turkey and pledge increased aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the region.

“As border guards try to seal the last remaining gaps in Turkey’s border, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are trapped in fields to face the bombs on the Syrian side,” said Gerry Simpson, associate refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should press Turkey to open its border to those in need, and provide meaningful support, not silently stand by as Turkey ignores refugee law and pushes thousands back to face the carnage.”


Border area where Turkish security forces regularly carry out mass deportations of Syrian asylum seekers.

Satellite data © 2018 DigitalGlobe; Analysis © 2018 Human Rights Watch
In response to these allegations, the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) in Turkey’s Ministry of Interior provided Human Rights Watch with a lengthy statement, which said, in part, that “while maintaining the security of borders against terrorist organizations, Turkey continues to accept Syrians in need coming to the borders, and never opens fire on or uses violence against them.”

The DGGM said that it registered 510,448 Syrians coming through the designated border gates in 2017, and 91,866 so far in 2018, and provided them with temporary protection. As seen from the numbers, the DGMM statement said, “allegations suggesting that Syrians are not registered are not true.” It does not appear that Turkish authorities conducted an investigation into Human Rights Watch’s specific findings.

In mid-February, Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with 21 Syrians about their repeated failed attempts to cross into Turkey with smugglers. Eighteen of them said that intensified Russia-Syrian airstrikes in Deir al-Zour and in Idlib had repeatedly displaced them until they finally decided they had no option but to risk their lives and flee to Turkey.

Those interviewed described 137 incidents, almost all between mid-December and early March, in which Turkish border guards intercepted them just after they had crossed the border with smugglers. Human Rights Watch spoke with another 35 Syrians stuck in Idlib who had not tried to escape for fear of being shot by border guards.

Nine people also described 10 incidents between September and early March in which Turkish border guards shot at them or others ahead of them as they tried to cross, killing 14 people, including 5 children, and injuring 18.

Civilians in Idlib have also been caught in the crossfire between Kurdish and Turkish forces during the offensive by Turkey in the Kurdish-held town of Afrin in Syria, north of Idlib, which began on January 20.

In November, the United Nations refugee agency said in its latest country guidance on Syria that “all parts of Syria are reported to have been affected, directly or indirectly, by one or multiple conflicts” and therefore maintained its long-standing call on all countries “not to forcibly return Syrians.”

Syrians who tried to enter Turkey said they were intercepted after they crossed the Orontes River or near the internally displaced persons camp in al-Dureyya. They said Turkish border guards deported them along with hundreds, and at times thousands, of other Syrians they had intercepted. They said the guards forced them to return to Syrian territory at an informal crossing point at Hatya or across a small dam on the Orontes River known as the Friendship Bridge that aid agencies have used.

Human Rights Watch obtained satellite images of both crossing points and of four security posts with large tents set up on basketball courts in the immediate border area where asylum seekers said they were held before being sent back to Syria. 

The findings follow a February 3 Human Rights Watch report on Turkey’s border killings and summary pushbacks of asylum seekers between May and December 2017 and similar findings in November 2015 and May 2016.

In response to the February 3 report, a senior Turkish official repeated his government’s long-standing response to such reports, pointing out that Turkey has taken in millions of Syrian refugees. Human Rights Watch described its latest findings in a letter on March 15 to Turkey’s interior minister, requesting comment by March 21.

Turkey is hosting over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the UN refugee agency. Turkey deserves credit and support for its generosity and is entitled to secure its border with Syria.

However, Turkey is also obliged to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits countries from returning anyone to a place where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. This includes a prohibition on rejecting asylum seekers at borders that would expose them to such threats. Turkey is also obliged to respect international norms on the use of lethal force as well as the rights to life and bodily integrity.

Turkey insists that it respects the principle of nonrefoulement. “Syrians are accepted and taken under protection in Turkey and Syrians who have entered into Turkey somehow and demand protection are definitely not sent back and the reception and registration procedures are carried out,” the DGMM’s statement in response to this report said. “Syrians coming to Turkey are under no circumstances forced to go back to their own country; their registration is continuing and these foreigners can benefit from many rights and services in Turkey.”


Map of the Turkey-Syria Border.

Satellite data © 2018 DigitalGlobe; Analysis © 2018 Human Rights Watch
As of December, Turkey had completed almost 800 kilometers of a planned 911-kilometer border barrier with Syria, which consists of a rocket-resistant concrete wall and steel fence. The satellite imagery Human Rights Watch obtained of the area where Syrians say they crossed with smugglers shows areas without a wall.

Turkey’s continued refusal since at least mid-2015 to allow Syrian asylum seekers to cross the border legally has been reinforced by a controversial EU-Turkey March 2016 migration agreement to curb refugee and migration flows to the European Union. The EU should instead be working with Turkey to keep its borders open to refugees, providing financial support for Turkey’s refugee efforts, and sharing responsibility by stepping up resettlement of refugees from Turkey, Human Rights Watch said.

“The EU should stop ignoring Turkey’s mass refugee deportations,” Simpson said. “The meeting in Bulgaria is a clear opportunity for the EU governments and institutions to change course and ramp up efforts to help Turkey protect Syrian refugees including through increased refugee resettlement.”

For more details about Turkey’s mass border pushbacks and the situation displaced Syrians face in Syria’s Idlib governorate, please see below.

Turkey’s land borders are legally protected by army border units of the Turkish Armed Forces. Gendarmerie also on duty at the borders operate under the authority of the land forces command. There are also gendarmerie stations near the borders charged with regular rural policing activities. This report refers to border guards without specifying if they are soldiers or gendarmes since many of those interviewed did not provide or do not have such specific information.

Regular Mass Pushbacks at the Turkish Border

Between February 14 and 20, Human Rights Watch interviewed the 21 Syrian asylum seekers who had tried multiple times to cross the border. Human Rights Watch interviewed them by cell phone and explained the purpose of the interviews and gave assurances of anonymity. We also received interviewees’ consent to describe their experiences.

They described 137 incidents – 107 of them between January 1 and March 6 – in which Turkish border guards intercepted them at the border near the Syrian town of Darkush and held them at nearby security posts and then deported them back to Syria with hundreds, and at times thousands, of others.

A man from Deir al-Zour governorate who fled Syrian government attacks on his village in September 2017 said border guards intercepted him nine times in January and the first half of February in border areas close to the al-Dureyya displaced people’s camp in Syria.

Describing three incidents in February, he said:

Each time they insulted the men, calling them “Syrian traitors.” They forced some of them to collect firewood. Then they took all of us in military trucks to a basketball court at a security post near the Hatya border gate. There was also a big tent there. They put us all in the tent and kept us overnight. They didn’t give us any food or water or let us go to a proper toilet. There were so many in the tent, that we were spilling out into the open of the basketball court. We were hundreds of people. The next morning, they took us all back to the border in buses.

A Turkish security base about 250 meters from the Turkey-Syria border, 2 kilometres south of the Turkish village, Saribük. The base has a basketball court and large tent, as described in statements by deported Syrian asylum seekers who said they were held in such a location before being deported.

© 2018 Digital Globe
Three Syrians said they were deported with thousands of others. A man from al-Hamediyah who said Turkish border guards intercepted him 11 times between September and January said that he was usually deported with about 500 other people. However, he said that on one occasion, in January, the border guards gave the people they had intercepted trying to cross from Syria numbers and his was 3,890. He said he was one of the last to be put on buses and taken to the border.

Many people referred to two deportation points that they said were between 10 and 30 minutes’ drive from the security posts where border guards had held them: one was an informal border crossing at Hatya, and the other was a small dam on the Orontes River called “Friendship Bridge.” Human Rights Watch obtained satellite imagery of both crossing points and of four security posts in the immediate border area where asylum seekers said they crossed into Turkey.

A woman from Hama governorate who repeatedly tried to cross the border said she was deported six times during the first two weeks of February with groups she estimated to be between 50 and 600 other Syrians:

The second time, on around February 4, the border guards took us to a military post and put us in a big tent with 200 other people they had already caught. Four hours later, at about 8 a.m., they put us in large buses and drove us to the Friendship Bridge. There they told us to get out and walk across the river back into Syria.

The satellite imagery Human Rights Watch obtained confirms there are gaps in the wall the full length of the Orontes River, west of the Syrian town of Salkeen, and at various points between the southern tip of where the river meets the border and the Hatya border crossing.

Deportations from Antakya

Three Syrians said Turkish police had deported them or relatives from the town of Antakya, about 20 kilometers west of the Syrian border.

A man from Deir al-Zour governorate said:

I crossed the border at night with my wife and two daughters and about 20 other people in late December 2017 near the al-Dureyya [displacement] camp. The border guards didn’t find us. The smugglers took us to their house in Antakya, about two hours’ drive away. There were 20 other Syrians already there and they told us they had also crossed from Syria that night. Not long after that, Turkish police arrived at the house. They took all of us to a police station and held us there until the next morning. They took our fingerprints and photos. Then they took all of us in police vans to the border at Bab al-Hawa and sent us back to Syria.

A man from Hama governorate described what happened to his wife:

The Turks sent my wife back from Antakya twice. She told me everything that happened. The first time was a week ago [about February 10]. The smugglers drove her and about 10 other people from the border near the Orontes River up to Reyhanli and from there they drove to Antakya. They reached the edge of Antakya at about 6 a.m. Turkish police shot at the car’s wheels to force it to stop. They beat the driver and immediately put my wife and the others in a police van and drove them to the border at Bab al-Hawa.

My wife crossed again four days later. The smugglers took her and about 10 others to a small house in a Turkish village near the border and then drove to a house in Antakya where there were already about 50 other Syrians who said they had arrived that night. Suddenly Turkish police arrived, at about 7 a.m. They wrote down their names and took photos. They put them in a big truck and took them to the Bab al-Hawa crossing. They held them there for the whole day and then sent them back to Syria.

Shootings by Border Guards

Nine Syrians interviewed described a total of 10 shooting incidents by Turkish border guards between September and March in which they said 14 people were killed and 18 injured.

In mid-February, a man from Deir al-Zour governorate said that in the previous five weeks he had tried four times to reach Turkey with his wife and five children. The first three times, he said, Turkish border guards deported them. The fourth time they turned back because Turkish border guards shot at their group as they approached the border:

A few hundred meters from the border near the al-Dureyya [displacement] camp the Turks suddenly started shooting at our group. They killed an 8-year-old girl and injured two men, one in a leg and the other in the stomach. I helped the man shot in the stomach turn back with the rest of us while the others carried the girl and helped the other man. Later the smugglers told us that a 13-year-old girl in another group trying to cross at the next time had also been killed during the shooting.   

A man evacuated with his wife and baby from Aleppo in late 2016 said he unsuccessfully attempted to cross with them to Turkey three times near the al-Dureyya camp in September 2017 and January 2018 and was deported with hundreds of others the first two times. During the third attempt, in January, he said:

The border guards shot at us and injured my wife in her stomach and leg. She was pregnant and the baby died. They also injured two men and a 5-year-old boy, who was shot in the leg. We took my wife to a hospital in Syria near the border. Her heart stopped twice, but she lived. They couldn’t operate on her, so they sent her to Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa gate for surgery. They amputated her leg and removed her womb. They didn’t let me cross with her but a few days later a smuggler helped me and my daughter cross to Turkey.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with a doctor in a Syrian hospital near the Turkish border west of the town of Idlib who said that between August 1 and February 16, the hospital had received 66 people with gunshot-related injuries who said they had been shot while trying to cross the Turkish border.

Conflict and Humanitarian Crisis in Idlib governorate

According to the UN, about 2.65 million people are currently in Idlib governorate, over 1.75 million of whom have been displaced from elsewhere in Idlib or other parts of Syria, including almost 400,000 displaced since December. Civilians in Idlib have faced years of conflict. In September, Russian and Syrian forces began a fresh offensive in Idlib, three days after Russia, Iran, and Turkey had agreed to a ceasefire and “de-escalation” zone in the province and parts of Hama and western Aleppo. Human Rights Watch documented that attacks in September struck markets and populated residential areas and caused thousands of people to flee to displacement sites near the Turkish border.

Hostilities in Idlib halted on October 8 after Turkey deployed monitors there, but restarted in late December. In January, the Russian-Syrian military alliance carried out airstrikes to support Syrian ground troops. Some attacks involved prohibited weapons and targeted hospitals.

The Atma displaced persons camp on the Syrian side of Turkey’s border wall, where on February 6, 2018, during an exchange of fire between Turkish and Kurdish forces, a shell hit killing a girl and injuring seven others.

© 2017 Reuters/Osman Orsal
On January 21, Turkey started a military offensive in Kurdish-held Afrin, also putting displaced civilians at risk. Turkish and Kurdish forces have shelled each other on either side of Syria’s Atma displacement camp, on the Turkish border, which shelters 60,000 people.

Witnesses said that on February 6, during the fighting, shells hit the camp, killing an 8-year-old girl and injuring seven other civilians.

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven displaced Syrians about the incident. They all said it left their children terrified of the shelling and unable to sleep.

A father of seven children from Hama who lived close to where the shell landed on February 6 said:

I was there when it happened and rushed to help. I heard a young girl had been killed, but I only saw two who were injured. One had lost an arm and a leg and the other was blinded. I was so scared the same might happen to my children, we fled the camp and went to live in a field near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. But we couldn’t stay there all alone, without help, so we had to come back to the camp. We are all scared now, all the time.

A father of four children said the incident had so shaken his family, he had returned to his still conflict-riven home town of Kafr Zita in Hama governorate because all other displacement camps in Idlib were full. As his house had been destroyed, he said, he was living in a field on the edge of the town and struggling to survive: “There is still shelling here but if we die, it’s better to die at home.”

Human Rights Watch also spoke with five Syrians who had been repeatedly displaced in recent months within Idlib to escape the shifting front line and who, as of mid-February, were living as close as possible to the Turkish border in the hope of escaping the fighting.

The UN says that since December, the violence has displaced at least 385,000 people who have joined 2.65 million other civilians, including 1.35 million civilians displaced in the past few years.

In mid-February, Human Rights Watch interviewed two aid officials working in Idlib governorate. One summarized the dire humanitarian situation:

There is no more room anywhere for people displaced in the past few months. Displacement camps are completely full and we [humanitarians] do not have the resources to properly address basic needs of water, food, heating, health care, and education. Rent has skyrocketed so people end up living in the tens of thousands on the edge of towns and villages in fields in makeshift camps. There is simply no way the aid agencies can help all these people. At best they can give very limited help once in a while to some of them, and it is not done in an organized way. There is suffering everywhere, in every camp and in every village.

The 56 displaced Syrians in Idlib that Human Rights Watch interviewed, including 42 displaced by the recent violence, all described the extremely difficult conditions they had faced in Idlib in previous months. The newly displaced said they had heard that displacement camps were completely full and that they could not afford to pay the extremely high rents in the towns and villages in the area. They ended up living in waterlogged fields across Idlib governorate, often with other families in makeshift tents made from sacks and other material sewed together, because they could not afford to buy proper tents.

They said they struggled to find food and had to pay high fees for water, delivered by trucks. They either had seen no one from an aid agency, or those who had, said they were unable to help or had promised help but hadn’t returned.

Turkish authorities have allowed Turkish and international aid groups based in Turkey to cross into Syria and join Syrian aid groups to distribute tents and other assistance to Syrians in camps in border areas. Human Rights Watch said that allowing much-needed cross-border aid is important, but does not absolve Turkey of its obligation to allow Syrian civilians fleeing fighting to seek protection in Turkey.

EU Silence

Human Rights Watch has documented that, since at least mid-August 2015, Turkish border guards enforcing the country’s March 2015 border closure have deported Syrians trying to reach Turkey. In April and May 2016, Human Rights Watch documented Turkish border guards shooting and beating Syrian asylum seekers trying to cross to Turkey, resulting in deaths and serious injuries, and sending those who managed to cross back to Syria. In February 2018, Human Rights Watch reported on further killings, injuries and pushbacks that happened in the second half of 2017.

On May 20, 2016, Human Rights Watch called on UN member states and UN agencies attending the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul to press the Turkish authorities to reopen Turkey’s border to Syrian asylum seekers. But neither the European Commission nor any European Union member state – or any other country – has publicly pressed Turkey to do so, while UN agencies have also remained publicly silent.

The world’s – and in particular the EU’s – silence over Turkey’s breach of the cornerstone of international refugee law condones Turkey’s border abuses.

The EU’s failure to take in more Syrian asylum seekers and refugees also contributes to the pressure on Turkey. The EU should swiftly fulfill its own commitments to relocate Syrian and other asylum seekers from Greece and, together with other countries, it should also expand safe and legal channels for people to reach safety from Turkey, including through increased refugee resettlement, humanitarian admissions, humanitarian and other visas, and facilitated family reunification.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

More than 13,500 asylum seekers remain trapped on the Greek islands in deplorable conditions as winter begins on December 21, 2017. Greece, with support from its European Union partners, should urgently transfer thousands of asylum seekers to the Greek mainland and provide them with adequate accommodation and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities should conduct an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation into the deaths of Syrians in military custody and allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 4, 2017, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying four Syrians died in its custody following mass raids in Arsal, a restricted access area in northeast Lebanon where many Syrian refugees live. On July 14, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that a fifth Syrian detainee had also died in custody.

A Lebanese soldier at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal

© 2016 Reuters

A doctor with expertise in documenting torture reviewed photos of three of the men provided by their family lawyers to Human Rights Watch, which showed widespread bruising and cuts. He said the injuries were “consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture” and that “any statement that the deaths of these individuals were due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.” Human Rights Watch also spoke with five former detainees, who said that army personnel beat and ill-treated them and other detainees. A military officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was investigating the deaths and would publish its findings.

“While the Lebanese army’s promise to investigate these shocking deaths is a positive step, the promise will be meaningless without transparent and independent accountability for anyone found guilty of wrongdoing,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone who supports the Lebanese army should support efforts to tackle such serious allegations of military abuse.”

Photos of the bodies of three Syrians who died in Lebanese military custody, provided to Human Rights Watch by their families' lawyers. © 2017 Private

On June 30, the Lebanese army announced it had raided two unofficial refugee camps in Arsal that day, and was met with suicide bombers, a bomb, and a grenade, resulting in the injury of seven soldiers. On July 15, the army released a statement saying that it detained 356 people following these raids. It referred 56 for prosecution and 257 to the General Security agency for lack of residency. A humanitarian organization official told Human Rights Watch that children were among those detained.

The Lebanese army regularly conducts raids on unofficial refugee camps in Lebanon, but has not responded to questions from Human Rights Watch about the purpose of these raids. The raids came amid calls from Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria and reports of an impending military operation against armed groups on the Syrian border near Arsal.

Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm reports that Syrians died during the raids themselves, but a source in Arsal said the municipality received nine bodies, not including the five men who were reported to have died in custody.

The army’s July 4 statement said that four detainees who “suffered from chronic health issues that were aggravated due to the climate condition” died before being interrogated. It identified them as Mustafa Abd el Karim Absse, 57; Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, 43; Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, 32; and Othman Merhi el-Mleis. The army did not specify where it had detained them.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a family member and a close acquaintance of two of the deceased, who said that they had no known serious health conditions. Both said that the army gave no reason for the arrests and did not notify the families of the deaths.

On July 14, Human Rights Watch received reports that a fifth Syrian detainee, Toufic al Ghawi, 23, died in detention after the army transferred him to the Elias Hrawi government hospital. A witness in Arsal who saw the body before burial said, “Toufic didn’t look human anymore. His flesh was torn apart.” Human Rights Watch has not received photographs of the body.

Additional evidence supports the allegations of abuse and torture during the arrests in Arsal and at military detention facilities. A witness in Arsal told Human Rights Watch that he had seen 34 former detainees with marks on their hands, legs, and backs, and in one case, on a former detainee’s head.

Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees who said they were mistreated, physically abused, and denied food and water, along with scores of other detainees during four to five days of detention without charge before being released.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the military on July 10 to verify the number of those arrested, injured, or killed during the army raids; those still in custody; and the conditions of their detention, but has not received a response. Human Rights Watch also requested permission to enter Arsal to interview witnesses, but has not received permission. An army officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was not allowing “media organizations” to enter Arsal. Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the military and military prosecutor.

Under international law, Lebanon has an obligation to investigate deaths in custody and hold those responsible to account. Human Rights Watch and local human rights organizations have long documented reports of torture and ill-treatment by security services including the army. Impunity for violence is a recurring problem in Lebanon. Even when officials have initiated investigations into deaths, torture, or ill-treatment, they have often not been concluded or made public. Human Rights Watch is not aware of cases where military personnel have been held to account.

“The Lebanese public and the Syrian families of those who died in detention deserve a clear accounting of what happened to them and punishment for those found responsible,” Whitson said. “Unfortunately, Lebanese authorities have a history of opening investigations in response to public pressure, but failing to conclude them or publish the results.”

Photographic Evidence of Torture
Human Rights Watch received 28 photographs of three of the deceased men, taken at the Elias Hrawi government hospital in Zahle, from the law firm representing the families of the deceased. The lawyers said they were not able to locate Othman el-Mleis’s body. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, who has expertise in documenting torture, reviewed the photographs and shared his report:

The photos reveal widespread physical trauma of the upper and lower extremities. The lack of defensive wounds suggests that these injuries were inflicted while the victims were restrained or otherwise incapacitated and the distribution of these injuries are consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture. Several of the photos are consistent with lacerations caused from being suspended by the wrists. It would be reasonable to conclude that the deaths of these men is the result of in-custody violence, although the precise cause of death cannot be predicted based on the information and photographs submitted. Any statement that the deaths of these individuals was due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.

Corroborating Evidence of Torture and Mistreatment of Arsal Detainees
Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees from Arsal who said they were detained without charge for four to five days. They said soldiers handcuffed them, hooded them with their shirts, put them on the ground in the sun, and stomped or hit anyone raising their head. “I moved my head up slightly, and immediately a soldier hit me with his boot,” one man said.

The men said soldiers then loaded them onto trucks “one over the other, as if they’re shipping potato bags,” and took them to multiple detention sites including Rayak Air Base in the Bekaa Valley and the military intelligence and military police bases in Ablah. At Rayak Air Base, they said, army personnel held more than 100 of them in one room overnight, denied them food and water, and did not allow them to use the bathroom. “They would beat whoever asked to go to the bathroom,” said a former detainee in his 60s.

They said that army personnel at Rayak beat, insulted, and threatened them and others. “They beat people, some with batons, others with the butt of a gun,” one said. “I saw one soldier on the outside poking one of the detainees from the window with a bent skewer. He beat him, then he started cutting his face…until blood came out.”

The men interviewed said they were finally transferred to General Security, the agency in charge of foreigners’ entry and residency, who did not mistreat them and released them. The former detainees said that the army never told them why they had been detained.

One former detainee, interviewed on July 11, said: “I had to leave my son behind [in detention]. To this day, I don’t know what has happened to him.” Lebanese law limits pre-charge detention to 96 hours.

Medical Reports
Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical reports for three of the deceased, dated July 1 and 2, and prepared by a forensic doctor at the request of the general prosecutor, concluding that they had suffered heart attacks and a stroke, and that the bodies did not show marks of violence.

A lawyer representing the families said she had received permission from a Judge of Urgent Affairs for a forensic doctor to examine the bodies, conduct an autopsy, and take medical samples to ascertain the cause of death. After she took the medical samples to the Hotel Dieu hospital in Beirut for analysis, the lawyer said, Military Intelligence personnel there demanded she turn them over, by order of the Military Information Directorate. She handed them over after the general prosecutor, Samir Hammoud, instructed her to do so. Following the military’s intervention, she said that the X-ray, CT scan, and autopsy results have not been released to her or made public.

The investigation into the men’s deaths is now before the military court, the family’s lawyer said. Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns about the independence, impartiality, and competence of the Military Tribunal, where the majority of judges are military officers who are not required to have law degrees, and where trials take place behind closed doors.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Erbil) – Iraqi forces have forcibly displaced at least 125 families said to have familial ties to affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.

Sunni tribal groups (known as the Hashad al-Asha'ri), within the Popular Mobilization Forces (known as the PMF or Hashd al-Sha'abi), which are under the control of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Iraqi soldiers forced the families out of their homes following the passage of a decree issued by local authorities. The families, all from Salah al-Din governorate, are being held against their will in a camp functioning as an open-air prison near Tikrit. The PMF also destroyed some of the families’ homes.

“While politicians in Baghdad are discussing reconciliation efforts in Iraq, the state’s own forces are undermining those efforts by destroying homes and forcing families into a detention camp,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These families, accused of wrongdoing by association, are in many cases themselves victims of ISIS abuses and should be protected by government forces, not targeted for retribution.”


Video: Local Authorities Displace Suspected "ISIS-Families" in Iraq

Iraqi forces have forcibly displaced at least 125 families said to have familial ties to affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). 

In August 2016, the Salah al-Din governorate council passed a decree stating that anyone proven to have been complicit or affiliated with ISIS has no right to return to the governorate. The decree also orders the expulsion of immediate relatives of ISIS-members from Salah al-Din for 10 years to life, and says that they are only allowed to return if they are deemed “safe.” The decree establishes a committee to seize ISIS-affiliates’ property and suspend their, and their families,’ provision cards. Families that kill their ISIS-affiliated relatives, or hand them over to the Iraqi authorities, are exempted.

One woman from al-Shakrah village, three kilometers south of al-Shirqat, said that PMF fighters forced her and her relatives from their home on January 7, 2017, because her husband’s brother had joined ISIS. She said that the fighters “forced our whole family of 14 people out and onto the truck. They didn’t let us grab even a change of clothing.”

Two women from the village of al-Aithah said that local PMF forces destroyed hundreds of homes with explosives after they retook the area on September 21, targeting not only some of the families they thought to be affiliated with ISIS, but also some families that had fled because of the fighting. Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed that between September 23 and October 23, 220 homes in the village were destroyed by explosives and fire.

Before and after satellite images Before and after satellite images

Satellite imagery shows the village of al-Aithah, outside Tikrit, Iraq, before and after the destruction caused by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). 

Before: © 2017 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

Under the laws of war, parties to a conflict may only attack military objectives. The intentional or wanton destruction of civilian property is unlawful unless the property is being used for a military purpose. Destroying property merely to punish the population is always prohibited.

Iraqi federal authorities should investigate any intentional destruction or looting of civilian property, punish those responsible – including those in command control at the time of such acts who failed to prevent the crimes – if abuses are found, and compensate victims, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch visited the Shahama camp for displaced people, 13 kilometres north of Tikrit, on February 3, to interview families affected by the decree. Hussein Ahmed Khalaf, the camp manager, said that 362 families were there, of whom 237 had fled Hawija, a city 50 kilometers west of Kirkuk that is still under ISIS control. Those families had arrived when the camp opened at the beginning of January.

He said that over the next month, 125 families from the al-Shirqat area were brought to the camp. Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people forcibly displaced with their families to the camp. They all said that PMF fighters, in the presence of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) with army vehicles, had forced them out of their homes. They said that they were prohibited from leaving the camp and from having mobile phones.

In a Salah al-Din news broadcast in January, Brigadier General Juma Enad Sadoon, the Salah al-Din operational commander for the ISF, said that he ordered the forced displacements of immediate relatives of ISIS members following the passage of the decree by the Salah al-Din governorate council. He said “ISIS families” were identified by other residents and through intelligence gathered by the security forces. He said he gave the order because of concerns about family members communicating with their ISIS relatives fighting in Mosul and other fronts and because of complaints from the relatives of victims of ISIS abuses. He said he would not stop displacing these families.

But most families who spoke to Human Rights Watch either denied they had a relative in ISIS or said that if they did, this family member was as distant as a cousin or brother-in-law.

Residents of Shahama camp speak with relatives through the camp fence. 



© 2017 Sami Hilali

On January 26, two videos were posted on a Facebook page covering news from Salah al-Din showing local PMF forces in al-Shirqat displacing families of ISIS suspects using army vehicles.

Both videos feature a female commander known as Um Hanadi of the local PMF of al-Shirqat known as the Group of Um Hanadi for Special Tasks (Tashkeel Um Hanadi La Mohmat al-Khasah). In one video, she and a group of armed forces are loading families they refer to as “ISIS families” onto at least two Iraqi army trucks with military license plates. The video shows at least two Iraqi military commanders, recognizable because of their red berets. One fighter and the cameraman identify themselves as members of the Iraqi military’s Division 17, Brigade 60. In the other video, Um Hanadi says to the camera, “It is an honor for me to clean and cleanse al-Shirqat with these elite forces.”

A New York Times article from January 29 about the camp quotes Salah al-Din’s deputy governor, Amar Hekmat, as saying that the aim behind the forcible displacement is, “to defy the terrorists and send a stern message to the families.” Salah al-Din’s First Deputy Governor Khazhal Hamad is quoted in the same article saying that displacing the families was a way of protecting them from retaliatory attacks by neighbors who lost family members to ISIS. “There are hostile feelings towards these people, and these feelings can affect the civil peace we are trying to achieve,” he said.

A February 28 response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ human rights office to Human Rights Watch’s findings stated that the displacement was carried out by the Salah al-Din operational command in order to protect the families from revenge attacks; for security reasons linked to continued suicide attacks; and because some of these families may be sharing information about ISF positions with ISIS. It stated that the operational command was mandated with holding and protecting the families in the camp. Representatives of the PMF did not respond to questions sent by Human Rights Watch.

The article goes on to say that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sent a letter in late January to the local governor criticizing the displacement and ordered governorate and federal government officials to resolve the issue. There was no indication he had called for the punishment of armed forces under his command that participated in it. Iraqi federal authorities including al-Abadi should continue to condemn the forcible displacement of these families and censure any state forces that participate in the practice, Human Rights Watch said.

Two of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that Salah al-Din’s Governor Ahmad Abdullah al-Jabouri came to the camp in late January and told them that he was working on a solution to secure their release, but that nothing had happened since.

It is a basic international standard that punishment for crimes should only be imposed on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or entire communities is strictly forbidden and can itself be a crime, especially if it results in forced displacement.

Under the laws of war, forced displacement of civilians is strictly prohibited except in the limited cases when displacement is necessary to protect civilians or for imperative military necessity, and then only for as long as it is needed. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to order such unlawful displacements of civilians during a conflict. Widespread or systematic unlawful forced displacement imposed as a policy of the state or organized group can amount to a crime against humanity.

Local governorate councils should reverse any decrees targeting the families of alleged ISIS affiliates in violation of international standards. Iraq’s parliament should issue a decree calling on the local governorate councils to rescind the decrees and on armed forces to cease the forced displacements, reiterating the unlawfulness of these displacements and stipulating that any armed forces who participate in the displacements should be censured.

“There is growing concern among parliamentarians and ministers about the forcible displacement of so-called ISIS families and what this will mean for reconciliation efforts in areas recently taken back from ISIS,” Fakih said. “That concern needs to translate into action before these destructive policies are mimicked across the country.”

Local Justifications for Displacement
Local leaders from Salah al-Din told Human Rights Watch that the forcible displacement of families of alleged ISIS affiliates was in line with jalwa, an Arabic term for eviction and a principle that entails the forced relocation of a clan to avoid friction if one of its members murders someone from another clan living in the same area.

Other local officials are taking similar measures to expel so-called “ISIS families.” In July, the Babylon governorate council passed a decree calling on authorities to demolish the homes of anyone proven to have participated in terrorist activities, deport their families from the governorate, and to authorize legal procedures against the families proven to have “concealed” their ISIS-affiliated relatives. Families from Anbar face similar difficulties. In July, local leaders issued a covenant saying that people who “promoted” ISIS are not allowed to return until their charges are reviewed. Individuals who did not renounce relatives who supported ISIS are only allowed to return home “when this situation stabilizes,” they said.

Identified with ISIS
Four of the 14 people Human Rights Watch interviewed were from al-Shakrah village and were brought to the Shahama camp on January 7 and January 26. Three were from al-Aithah village, 11 kilometers north of al-Shirqat, and were brought to the camp in early January. The rest were from three neighborhoods of the town of al-Shirqat and were brought to the camp on January 26, 28, and 29. Some were brought alone, while others said they were loaded into approximately 30 vehicles, some with up to 11 other families. Several said they had only the most tangential connections, or no connections at all, to people who had joined ISIS.

One couple said that their cousin, a member of Um Hanadi’s PMF group with whom they had a running land dispute for years, was the one that brought forces to their home and made them leave. They said they had no links to ISIS. Another woman said she was a nurse, and had continued her work at the local hospital under ISIS because she was the only female nurse and felt it was her duty to provide health care for women. Fighters brought her and her family to the camp, saying it was because she had been affiliated with ISIS, she said.

One widowed woman said that ISIS fighters forced her to marry off her 14-year-old daughter to one of their fighters after they took her village in 2014. According to the mother, the daughter married the fighter, who was subsequently killed, and gave birth weeks before she and the rest of her family were forcibly displaced. The woman said PMF and Iraqi soldiers displaced her and her family, including her daughter and grandchild, to the camp because of the forced marriage.

“They [the PMF] told me: ‘You gave your daughter to ISIS,’” she said. “But they do not understand our situation with ISIS and the pressure they put on us. We couldn’t say anything to them…I had no choice. I couldn’t say anything…ISIS became the government ruling over everyone. They’ve gone to war with every country. What could I do as a woman to oppose them?”

“As they drove us from al-Shirqat they were celebrating, it was like a victory for them,” said a man from the Jamia neighborhood. He said PMF and ISF jointly rounded up 28 people from his area and brought them to the camp on a convoy of dozens of cars, blaring celebratory music from their loudspeakers:

We saw all these cars and trucks suddenly pull up in our village, and I saw several Hashad fighters [PMF] knock on the door of my neighbors. Their son had been with ISIS. They forced them out immediately and into one of the trucks. Then came the knock at our door, and my mother-in-law opened and told the fighters that her son’s family, my husband’s brother, who had joined ISIS, lived down the road. They said to her, “But you are also related to him.”

Shahama Camp Conditions
Human Rights Watch observed that the families from Hawija and al-Shirqat in the Shahama camp are housed in tents in separate areas of the camp. The camp manager said that this was because of concerns over possible tensions between people who left Hawija voluntarily and those forcibly displaced from al-Shirqat over suspected family ties to ISIS suspects.

Shahama camp residents are not allowed to leave or to have mobile phones, and visitors are restricted. Residents at the camp from the initial wave of families from Hawija told Human Rights Watch that until the al-Shirqat families arrived they had been allowed to have phones, and leave the camp at will.

The camp receives assistance and support from four international aid organizations, but two aid workers said that most aid groups would not support a camp that is functioning as a holding site for forcibly displaced people, rather than a camp to which displaced people have gone voluntarily. Having visited about a dozen camps in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Human Rights Watch researchers observed significantly worse conditions in the Shahama camp than in the other camps it had visited. According to a senior aid worker and the camp manager, the camp has no clinic, no school, and lacks adequate sanitation services and food, water, and heating oil.

Destruction and Looting
A local sheikh from the village of al-Aithah interviewed in the Shahama camp said the PMF arrived three days after the Iraqi military retook the village from ISIS on September 19. Two women from the village said that the PMF forces destroyed hundreds of homes. One said her home was included and the other that she witnessed the destruction:

I saw them destroying the houses. They would destroy around 15 homes a day. For about 15 days the destruction didn’t stop in the village. My house was not destroyed when the army came, but…lots of neighbors’ homes were destroyed by the PMF. It was the local PMF destroying the homes. I saw them and know them personally as being from the local PMF.

She said the PMF targeted the homes not only of some families thought to have links to ISIS, but also some of those who had simply fled the area out of fear.

Local residents said that as far as they were aware, there were no airstrikes on the village after it was retaken, so the destruction could not have been a result of aerial attacks, and there was seemingly no military necessity for the destruction, meaning it most likely constituted a war crime. “We want the Iraqi government to show mercy on these women and children,” one of the women said. “Don’t act like ISIS, by destroying homes and displacing families.”

Several members of the displaced families also said PMF members looted their property. One woman from Tal al-Jumaila neighborhood in al-Shirqat said that the morning before she was displaced, PMF confiscated her cow without giving any reason. A man from Tal al-Jumaila neighborhood and another from al-Shakrah village both said fighters took their cars. The rest of the interviewees said that because they did not have access to their phones, they did not know what had happened to their property since they left.

Seven people interviewed said that ISF had arrested one or more of their family members, in one case a 15-year-old boy, on suspicion of ISIS affiliation either at their homes or at a checkpoint in the area, some as early as August. Six had not heard from their relatives since and all of them said that because of the ban on phones, they were unable to make any calls to see if they were still in detention or had access to a lawyer.

One man from al-Shakrah said he had been detained by ISF at a checkpoint near Tikrit because his brother had been an ISIS member, and was beaten for a day with electric cables while guards asked him how he could have shared a home with an ISIS fighter. That night, he said, they transferred him to the Salah al-Din operations room, and then to a prison in Tikrit. A few weeks later he was taken before a judge and ordered released, after which he returned to al-Shakrah, he said. On January 7, he and his family were forced to relocate to the camp.

Another al-Shakrah villager said that on September 24, 2016, more than 15 Iraqi soldiers and PMF members who were in the village told all the men and boys ages 15 and over to gather at the local school to be screened:

I gathered there with my 15-year-old son, as we were told. A soldier called out three names of men from the village and detained them. Then about 20 fighters wearing PMF patches brought 10 more men with masked faces to us, and started pointing at people at random, while the ISF stood by and watched. The PMF took away the 14 men and one boy, my own son, whom they pointed at, loading them onto military trucks. One PMF fighter was filming the group of detainees on his phone as they waited to load the trucks, and ordered them to bark like dogs.

They brought his son back after 28 days. The family confirmed with Iraqi army officers that his son was not on a wanted list, but five days later, PMF came to the home with a masked man who said the boy was affiliated with ISIS and detained him again, the father said. The father said he has heard nothing from him since and that on January 7, local PMF members in the village came to their home and said they were an “ISIS family” and had to get onto the PMF trucks and go to the camp.

Iraqi federal authorities should make efforts to inform family members about the location of all detainees. Iraqi federal authorities should make public the number of fighters and civilians detained, including at checkpoints, screening sites, and camps during the conflict with ISIS, and the legal basis for their detention, including the charges against them. They should ensure prompt independent judicial review of detention and allow detainees access to lawyers and medical care and to communicate with their families, Human Rights Watch said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

After 25 years of vicious conflict that has cost countless lives and displaced millions of people, peace has finally broken out in south-central Somalia — at least that's what Kenya says. And the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has joined Kenya to tell the world it should now focus on helping as many refugees as possible to return home.

But I recently spoke with some of the estimated 320,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp. And it's clear that peace is the last thing some of those signing up for UNHCR's $400 repatriation cash handout are discovering.

A newly arrived Somali refugee is forced out of the queue outside a reception centre in the Ifo 2 refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, July 28, 2011

© 2011 Reuters

A number of refugees told me they had returned destitute to destroyed Somali villages without health care provision and schools, or faced danger as armed groups continue to clash in and around their villages, including towns. After doing their best to survive, they fled back to Kenya, once again as refugees.

One of them is "Amina," a 38-year-old single mother. After a decade in Dadaab, she decided to try her luck and returned in January 2015 with her five children to her village, Bula Gudud, in the Lower Juba region, hoping to rebuild her life.

She told me: "After two days back home, fighting broke out between government troops and al-Shabab [armed Islamist group]. I could hear the bullets. My children were so scared. They just ran around, trying to get out of the house." The following day, Amina fled to the closest city, Kismayo. She had no relatives there but hoped she'd find safety and work to feed her children. She found neither.

She and her family barely survived for nine months with other displaced civilians in Kismayo's appalling internally displaced persons' camps. After a man in a government uniform raped her, a common occurrence in the unprotected and aid-starved camps across the country, Amina gave up and 10 months ago begged her way back to Dadaab.

But her ordeal didn't end there. The Kenyan authorities have refused to re-register her and her children as refugees, and UNHCR has not reactivated her ration card or given her any food.

"If we send 1,000 people home under the voluntary repatriation agreement but we then register 1,000 new arrivals, we would not get the job done," a Kenyan government official in Dadaab told me

Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR had signed an agreement in November 2013 on the "voluntary repatriation" of Somali refugees. It says that both countries and the UN would make sure that Somalis return voluntarily and safely and would get help to resettle back home. A few months later UNHCR said that "the security situation in many parts of ... Somalia [is] volatile [and] protracted ... conflict has had devastating consequences, including massive displacement, weakened community structures, gross human rights violations and the breakdown of law and order".

But Kenya has repeatedly referred to this agreement as evidence that it is time for all Somalis to go home, stressing that the UN agency should help Kenya "expedite" refugee repatriation.

Somali refugees have a collective memory of previous repeated attempts by Kenyan security forces to coerce "voluntary" returns. In late 2012, Kenyan police in Nairobi unleashed appalling abuses in an effort to enforce an illegal directive to drive tens of thousands of urban Somali refugees into the Dadaab camps and from there back to Somalia. In April 2014, Kenyan security forces, primarily police, carried out a second round of abuses against Somalis in Nairobi and then deported 359 a month later without allowing them to challenge their removal.

In May 2016, Kenya announced that "hosting refugees has to come to an end", that Somali asylum seekers would no longer automatically get refugee status and that the Department of Refugee Affairs, responsible for registering and screening individual asylum applications, would be disbanded.

So far, thankfully, the Kenyan police in Dadaab appear to have been acting properly and the refugees told us they had not been harassed or directly coerced. But they are all aware that the government intends to close the camp by the end of November. Everyone we spoke to expressed the fear that those who do not take the voluntary repatriation assistance package now will be forced back later this year with nothing.

Since mid-2015, Amina and at least another 4,000 Somali refugees have either returned to Kenya after facing conflict and hunger back home or fled to Dadaab for the first time.

But with refugee registrations now closed, Amina and the others won't get food aid. Their survival will depend on the kindness of neighbours or relatives whose own rations were slashed last year by a third because of a funding shortfall. Amina and other returnees and new arrivals will also be the first to face arrest and deportation for "illegal presence" if Kenya shuts down Dadaab in three months.

International and Kenyan law require the authorities to make sure that anyone seeking asylum in Kenya is fairly heard and, if found to need protection, gets it. As long as Kenya continues to shred its commitments, Amina and thousands of others like her will languish hungry and destitute in legal limbo and wake up every morning wondering whether they are about to be deported back to the dangers that many have repeatedly fled and still fear.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary. September 9, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The massive refugee crisis demands an unprecedented global response. At two summits on September 19 and 20, 2016, at the United Nations, world leaders should take bold steps to share responsibility for millions of people displaced by violence, repression, and persecution.

Leaders will gather in New York to discuss providing greater support to countries where refugees first land, just as many of those countries are at breaking point. There is a grave risk to the bedrock foundation of refugee protection, the principle of nonrefoulement – not forcibly returning refugees to places where they would face persecution and other serious threats. People are fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, among others.

“Millions of lives hang in the balance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.”

This year, Human Rights Watch has documented Turkish border guards shooting and pushing back civilians who appear to be seeking asylum; Jordan refusing entry or assistance to Syrian asylum seekers at its border; Kenya declaring that it will close the world’s largest refugee camp in November and pushing Somalis to return home despite potential danger; and Pakistan and Iran harassing and deregistering Afghan refugees and coercing them to return to a country in conflict.

The UN General Assembly has convened the September 19 summit “with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach” to refugees. The final statement, already drafted, is a missed opportunity to widen the scope of protection and limits expectations for concrete, new commitments. However, it affirms refugee rights and calls for more equitable responsibility sharing. Given the scale of the refugee crisis and populist backlash in many parts of the world, this affirmation should be the basis for collective action, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 20, US President Barack Obama will host a “Leader’s Summit” to increase commitments for aid, refugee admissions, and opportunities for work and education for refugees. Governments are expected to make concrete pledges toward goals of doubling the number of resettlement places and other admissions, increasing aid by 30 percent, getting 1 million more refugee children in school, and granting 1 million more adult refugees the right to work. Though the participants have not been announced, 30 to 35 countries are expected to attend. Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan will join the United States as co-facilitators.

Boost Humanitarian Aid to Countries of First Arrival
The vast majority of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are in the global south, where they often face further harm, discrimination, and neglect. Human Rights Watch called on countries of first arrival like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand, Kenya, Iran, and Pakistan, to commit to proposals to provide refugees with better access to work and education.

The world’s richest nations have largely failed to help countries on the front lines of the displacement crisis. As of September 9, UN aid appeals were 39 percent funded, with some of the worst-funded in Africa; the appeal for refugees from South Sudan stands at 19 percent. The regional refugee response plans for Yemen and Syria are funded at 22 and 49 percent.

Increase Numbers Resettled in Other Countries
Resettlement from countries of first arrival is a key way to help refugees rebuild their lives and to relieve host countries, but international solidarity is glaringly absent. In 2015, the UN refugee agency facilitated resettlement of 81,000 of a projected 960,000 refugees globally in need of resettlement. The agency estimated that over 1.1 million refugees would need resettlement in 2016, but projected that countries would only offer 170,000 places. Representatives of 92 countries pledged only a slight increase in resettlement places for Syrian refugees at a high-level UN meeting in March.

In the European Union, the arrival by boat in 2015 of more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants – and more than 3,700 deaths at sea – laid bare the need for safe and legal channels for refugees to move, such as resettlement.  However, many EU countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary, are focused primarily on preventing spontaneous arrivals, outsourcing responsibility, and rolling back refugee rights.

A July 2015 European plan to resettle 22,500 refugees from other regions over two years has resettled only 8,268 refugees, according to figures from July 2016. Most EU countries underperformed, and 10 failed to resettle a single person under the plan.

End Abusive Systems, Flawed Deals
The EU struck a deal with Turkey in March to allow the return to Turkey of almost all asylum seekers on the deeply flawed grounds that Turkey is a safe country for asylum; it is on the verge of falling apart. Australia forcibly transfers all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore processing centers, where they face abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect.

The EU and Australia should renounce these abusive policies. EU countries should swiftly adopt a proposed permanent resettlement framework with more ambitious goals and a clear commitment to meet them, Human Rights Watch said. They should share fairly the responsibility for asylum seekers arriving spontaneously, and help alleviate the pressure on Greece and Italy.

Governments also undermine asylum with closed camps, as in Kenya and Thailand, and by detaining asylum seekers, as do Australia, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

While by many measures the US leads in refugee resettlement and response to UN humanitarian aid appeals, it has been particularly slow and ungenerous in admitting Syrian refugees. And it has had notable blind spots, as with its border policies for Central American children and others fleeing gang violence and its use of Mexico as a buffer to keep them from reaching the US border.

The Obama Administration met its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year in the face of opposition from more than half of US governors and a lack of resettlement funds from Congress, but the US has the capacity to resettle many times that number. It should commit to meeting the Leaders’ Summit goals, which would mean doubling this year’s 85,000 total refugee admissions to 170,000.

Several other countries with capacity to admit far more refugees, including Brazil, Japan, and South Korea, have fallen woefully short. Japan admitted 19 refugees in 2015, South Korea only 42 aside from North Koreans, and Brazil only 6.

Russia resettles no refugees. The Gulf States do not respond to UN resettlement appeals, though Saudi Arabia says it has suspended deportations of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who overstay visitor visas. Most Gulf states, except Kuwait, have also fallen short in their response to Syrian-refugee-related UN appeals to fund refugee needs, according to an Oxfam analysis.

“Every country has a moral responsibility to ensure the rights and dignity of people forced to flee their homes,” Roth said. “When more than 20 million people are counting on a real international effort to address their plight, lofty pronouncements are not enough.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bulgaria bears a “big responsibility” for protecting the European Union’s external borders and should do so “in full respect” of migrants’ human rights, says Europe’s senior minister for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Bulgarian border police stand near a barbed wire fence on the Bulgarian-Turkish border on July 17, 2014. 

© 2014 Reuters

Speaking in the country’s capital, Sofia, Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, said Bulgaria had the EU’s support as well as his “personal commitment” as it seeks to police Europe’s outer frontiers.

But can Avramopoulos really be confident that Bulgaria will respect migrants' rights in the way he hopes? Its track record suggests not.

Take the case of 16-year-old ‘Abdullah’ from Afghanistan, who experienced Bulgaria’s “respect” first hand.

“When Bulgarian police saw us, we tried to run away,” he said. “They chased us with dogs and shot at us. There were five police. When they caught us, they started beating us. They kicked me and the others wherever they could reach. They did this for about an hour and threatened us with the dogs. They took my money and mobile.”

Abdullah (not his real name) is one of several migrants and asylum seekers who told Human Rights Watch about summary returns from Bulgaria, and violence both at its borders and inside detention centers in late 2015. These are not new problems; we also documented similar abuses in April and September 2014.

Yet Abdullah’s and hundreds of others’ similar testimonies have fallen on deaf ears at EU headquarters in Brussels. While Bulgaria has the right to protect its borders, it doesn’t have the right to summarily return people to Turkey or physically abuse them. By focusing on border protection, Avramopoulos missed the chance to press Bulgaria on violence against migrants and asylum seekers.

The commission should forcefully remind Bulgaria of EU laws and standards, and urge Bulgarian authorities to investigate these credible reports of abuses and bring them to a halt. Because ignoring Abdullah’s story won’t make the allegations go away, and resorting to violence is no way to manage the refugee crisis.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch's refugee program, monitors, investigates, and documents human rights abuses against refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons, and advocates for the rights and humanitarian needs of all categories of forcibly displaced persons around the world.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Frelick directed Amnesty International USA's refugee program and the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), which he served for 18 years. He was the editor of USCR's annual World Refugee Survey and monthly Refugee Reports. Frelick has traveled to refugee sites throughout the world and is widely published. He taught in the Middle East from 1979-1983 and was co-coordinator of the Asian Center of Clergy and Laity Concerned from 1976-1979. Frelick has a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. from Columbia University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Libya: Nightmarish Detention for Migrants, Asylum Seekers

European Union policies contribute to a cycle of extreme abuse against migrants in Libya. The EU and Italy’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard contributes significantly to the interception of migrants and asylum seekers and their subsequent detention in arbitrary, abusive detention in Libya. 

(Brussels) – European Union policies contribute to a cycle of extreme abuse against migrants in Libya, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The EU and Italy’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard contributes significantly to the interception of migrants and asylum seekers and their subsequent detention in arbitrary, abusive detention in Libya.

The 70-page report, “‘No Escape from Hell’: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya,” documents severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and lack of adequate health care. Human Rights Watch found violent abuse by guards in four official detention centers in western Libya, including beatings and whippings. Human Rights Watch witnessed large numbers of children, including newborns, detained in grossly unsuitable conditions in three out of the four detention centers. Almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya in 2018 were children.

“Migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya, including children, are trapped in a nightmare, and what EU governments are doing perpetuates detention instead of getting people out of these abusive conditions,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe director at Human Rights Watch. “Fig-leaf efforts to improve conditions and get some people out of detention do not absolve the EU of responsibility for enabling the barbaric detention system in the first place.”

In a letter to Human Rights Watch as the report went to print, the European Commission indicated that its dialogue with Libyan authorities has focused on respect for the human rights of migrants and refugees, that the EU’s engagement in Libya is of a humanitarian nature, and that concrete improvements have been achieved though challenges remain.

Kemi, a Nigerian woman who was seven-months’ pregnant at the time, said a guard at al-Karareem detention center beat her with a hose.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch visited the Ain Zara and Tajoura detention centers in Tripoli, the al-Karareem detention center in Misrata, and the Zuwara detention center in the city of the same name in July 2018. All are under the nominal control of the Directorate to Counter Illegal Migration (DCIM) of the Government of National Accord (GNA), one of two competing authorities in Libya. Human Rights Watch spoke with over 100 detained migrants and asylum seekers, including 8 unaccompanied children, and each center’s director and senior staff. Researchers also met with the head of DCIM; senior officials of Libya’s Coast Guard, which is aligned with the GNA; and representatives of international organizations and diplomats.

Abdul, an 18-year-old from Darfur, was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in May 2018, when he attempted to reach Europe to apply for asylum. He was subsequently detained in abysmal, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions in the al-Karareem center. He said that guards beat him on the bottom of his feet with a hose to make him confess to helping three men escape. Abdul’s experience encapsulates the struggle, dashed hopes, and suffering of so many migrants and asylum seekers in Libya today, Human Rights Watch said.

Senior officials in EU institutions and member countries are aware of the situation. In November 2017, EU migration commissioner, Dimitri Avramopoulos, said: “We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya.”  Yet since 2016, the EU and particular member states have poured millions of euros into programs to beef up the Libyan Coast Guard’s capacity to intercept boats leaving Libya, fully aware that everyone is then automatically detained in indefinite, arbitrary detention without judicial review.

Detainees said guards at al-Karareem detention center beat them on the soles of their feet. 

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Italy – the EU country where the majority of migrants departing Libya have arrived – has taken the lead in providing material and technical assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard forces and abdicated virtually all responsibility for coordinating rescue operations at sea, to limit the number of people arriving on its shores. The increase in interceptions in international waters by the Libyan Coast Guard, combined with obstruction by Italy and Malta of rescue vessels operated by nongovernmental organizations, has contributed to overcrowding and deteriorating conditions in Libyan detention centers.

Enabling the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people in international waters and return them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in Libya can constitute aiding or assisting in the commission of serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. EU and member state support for programs for humanitarian assistance to detained migrants and asylum seekers and for evacuation and repatriation schemes have done little to address the systemic problems with immigration detention in Libya, and serve to cover up the injustice of the EU containment policy.

Elijah said guards forced detainees to sit on the ground and stare at the sun.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Libyan authorities should end arbitrary immigration detention and institute alternatives to detention, improve conditions in detention centers, and ensure accountability for state and non-state actors who violate the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. The authorities should also sign a memorandum of understanding with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, to allow it to register anyone in need of international protection, regardless of nationality, in full respect of its mandate.

EU institutions and member states should impose clear benchmarks for improvements in the treatment of migrants and conditions in detention centers in Libya and be prepared to suspend cooperation if benchmarks are not met. The EU should also ensure and enable robust search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, including by nongovernmental groups, and significantly increase resettlement of asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants out of Libya.

“EU leaders know how bad things are in Libya, but continue to provide political and material support to prop up a rotten system,” Sunderland said. “To avoid complicity in gross human rights abuses, Italy and its EU partners should rethink their strategy to truly press for fundamental reforms and ending automatic detention.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Executive Summary

If someone escapes hell, how can you grab them and take them back to hell?
– Bamba, a 31-year-old from Ivory Coast who reached Italy in October 2016

Soft-spoken Abdul left Darfur in 2016 when he was eighteen. He went to Egypt, where he registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR but, despairing of being resettled, Abdul decided to go to Libya to attempt the journey to safety in Europe. He spent three months in a smuggler warehouse in Sebratha but there too he endured “very much suffering,” and escaped to Tripoli. It would only be in early May 2018 that, in the early hours of the morning, he finally crammed himself into a rubber boat with over 100 people and set off from Khoms, a coastal city east of Tripoli. Their journey was short; the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted the rubber boat after roughly four hours at sea.


Libya: Nightmarish Detention for Migrants, Asylum Seekers

European Union policies contribute to a cycle of extreme abuse against migrants in Libya. The EU and Italy’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard contributes significantly to the interception of migrants and asylum seekers and their subsequent detention in arbitrary, abusive detention in Libya. 

When we spoke in mid-July, he was recovering from what he described as torture by the guards in al-Karareem detention center near Misrata, where he had been detained in abysmal, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions for two months. He said guards beat him on the bottom of his feet with a hose to make him confess to helping three men escape. Abdul’s hopes were thread-bare; he wished only to be transferred to a detention center in Tripoli, where he hoped he would have more access to UN agencies that might help him.

Abdul’s experience encapsulates the struggle, dashed hopes, and suffering of so many migrants and asylum seekers in Libya today: beholden to unscrupulous smugglers, captive to a market that exploits the most basic human needs for survival and dignity, victims of indifference or downright hostility to people in need of protection and safety.

In July 2018, Human Rights Watch researchers visited four detention centers in Tripoli, Misrata, and Zuwara where they documented inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate healthcare, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and use of electric shocks.

Migrant children are as much at risk as adults of being detained in Libya. Human Rights Watch witnessed large numbers of children, including newborns, detained in grossly unsuitable conditions in Ain Zara, Tajoura and Misrata detention centers. They and their caretakers, including breast-feeding mothers, lack adequate nourishment. Healthcare for children, as for adults, is absent or severely insufficient. There are no regular, organized activities for children, play areas or any kind of schooling. Almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya in the first nine months of 2018 were children under the age of 18. Children are also not exempt from abuses; we documented allegations of rape and beatings of children by guards and smugglers.

Detainees said guards at al-Karareem detention center beat them on the soles of their feet. 

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Because it is indefinite and not subject to judicial review, immigration detention in Libya is arbitrary under international law.

Senior EU officials are aware of the plight facing migrants detained in Libya. In November 2017, EU migration commissioner, Dimitri Avramopoulos, said, “We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya.”  He and other senior EU officials have repeatedly asserted that the EU wants to improve conditions in Libyan detention in recognition of grave and widespread abuses. However, Human Rights Watch interviews with detainees, detention center staff, Libyan officials, and humanitarian actors revealed that EU efforts to improve conditions and treatment in official detention centers have had a negligible impact.

An infant detainee at Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

Instead, European Union (EU) migration cooperation with Libya is contributing to a cycle of extreme abuse. The EU is providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard to enable it to intercept migrants and asylum seekers at sea after which they take them back to Libya to arbitrary detention, where they face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labor.

Since 2016, the EU has intensified efforts to prevent boat departures from Libya. EU policy-makers and leaders justify this focus as a political and practical necessity to assert control over Europe’s external borders and “break the business model of smugglers,” as well as a humanitarian imperative to prevent dangerous boat migration. In reality, the externalization approach has the effect of avoiding the legal responsibilities that arise when migrants and asylum seekers reach EU territory by outsourcing migration control.

EU institutions and member states have poured millions of euros into programs to beef up the capacity of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord—one of two competing authorities in Libya, and one whose power rests largely on fungible alliances with militias and no real control over territory—to intercept boats leaving Libya and detain those intercepted in detention centers where they face appalling conditions. Italy—the EU country where the majority of migrants departing Libya arrive—has taken the lead in providing material and technical assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard and abdicated virtually all responsibility for coordination of rescue operations at sea in a bid to limit the number of people arriving on its shores.

Kemi, a Nigerian woman who was seven-months’ pregnant at the time, said a guard at al-Karareem detention center beat her with a hose.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Legal and bureaucratic obstacles have blocked most nongovernmental rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. While Mediterranean departures have decreased since mid-2017, the chances of dying in waters off the coast of Libya significantly increased from 1 in 42 in 2017 to 1 in 18 in 2018, according to UNHCR.

Clashes in Tripoli between competing armed groups in August-September 2018, which lasted for a month, presented further problems and risks for detained migrants. During the clashes—which illustrated the Government of National Accord’s fragile hold on power and caused civilian deaths and destruction to civilian structures—guards abandoned at least two detention centers as fighting drew near, leaving detainees unprotected inside. Authorities eventually transferred hundreds to other detention centers in the capital, contributing to even greater overcrowding in those centers. The fighting also temporarily interrupted EU-funded humanitarian aid to the detention centers and United Nations programs to evacuate vulnerable asylum seekers and repatriate migrants.

Since the end of 2017, the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), also a UN agency, have accelerated EU-funded programs to help asylum seekers and migrants safely leave Libya, a country with no refugee law and no asylum system. By the end of November 2018, UNHCR had evacuated 2,069 asylum seekers from Libya to a transit center in Niamey, Niger, for refugee status determination and, ultimately, resettlement to Europe and other countries. However, the program suffers from UNHCR’s limited capacity and mandate in Libya as well as from a gap between the number of resettlement places host countries are prepared to offer and the number of refugees in need. As of November 2018, UNHCR also evacuated an additional 312 directly to Italy and 95 to a UNHCR emergency transit center in Romania.

Human Rights Watch witnessed two women having what appeared to be seizures after one had attempted suicide at Tajoura detention center, Tripoli. 

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

The IOM had assisted over 30,000 to return from Libya to their home countries through its “voluntary humanitarian program” between January 2017 and November 2018. While the program can be valuable in assisting people without protection needs who wish to return home safely, it cannot be described as truly voluntary as long as the only alternatives are the prospect of indefinite abusive detention in Libya or a dangerous and expensive journey across the Mediterranean.

Despite these programs, increased interceptions by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard led to an increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya. At the time of our research, in July 2018, there were between 8,000-10,000 people in official detention centers, up from 5,200 in April 2018.

The cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Libyan detention centers described in this report violate international law. Libyan authorities are accountable for these abuses and the lack of accountability for perpetrators. EU institutions are aware of the mistreatment and inhumane detention conditions in Libya for those intercepted. Indeed, the EU provides support intended to ameliorate these conditions in detention. However, even though that support has had minimal impact on the situation, the EU continues to pursue a flawed strategy to empower Libyan Coast Guards to intercept migrants and asylum seekers and take them back to Libya. Where the EU, Italy and other governments have knowingly contributed significantly to the abuses of detainees, they have been complicit in those abuses.

Neither the complexities of international migration nor the myriad challenges facing Libya today excuse the brutality visited in Libya upon migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

Artist rendition of overcrowded men’s section at Zuwara detention center, Zuwara.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch


Key Recommendations

  • Libyan authorities should end arbitrary immigration detention and institute alternatives to detention, allow UNHCR to operate in full respect of its mandate, improve conditions in detention centers, and ensure accountability for state and non-state actors who violate the rights of migrants and asylum seekers;
  • EU institutions and member states should ensure and enable robust search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, significantly increase resettlement of asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants out of Libya, and impose clear benchmarks for improvements in Libyan search-and-rescue capacity as well as treatment and conditions in detention centers in Libya, and be prepared to suspend cooperation if benchmarks are not met;
  • United Nations agencies should press for respect by EU and Libyan authorities of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya and should increase coordination amongst themselves and with Libyan authorities to ensure that people with protection needs, including children, are properly identified, tracked, and protected.



Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in Libya from July 4 to July 12, 2018. Although we requested from the Government of National Accord (GNA) Interior Ministry access to all Directorate for Illegal Migration (DCIM) managed facilities in western Libya, DCIM granted access only to four immigration detention centers in Ain Zara, Tajoura, Zuwara and Misrata. All interviews with detainees were conducted privately and out of earshot of guards. Center staff did not determine whom we spoke with. Guards were able to see but not hear us as we conducted interviews. One interviewee who escaped a few weeks after our visit told us a guard pressed him to relate our questions and what he had told us.

We conducted 66 individual interviews with migrants and asylum seekers, and seven group interviews with a total of 41 persons. We spoke with 33 women, 66 men, 4 unaccompanied girls aged 8-17, and 4 unaccompanied boys aged 13-16. Group interviews provided information about the situation in the center, information specific to a group of the same nationality, and shared experiences of arrests or interceptions at sea.  Almost all of the detailed individual accounts came from one-on-one interviews, though some group interviews allowed for specific details on individuals in the groups. The interviews were conducted in English, French, and Arabic. Interviewees were from Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Palestine, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan (Darfur), and Syria.

In every detention center visited, Human Rights Watch met with the director and other senior staff. Human Rights Watch met with the head of the DCIM, senior officials in the GNA Libyan Coast Guard, including the commander and spokesperson, and the heads of mission for the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as staff of international nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch met also with representatives of the EU’s Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) and the Italian ambassador to Libya at the time.

Human Rights Watch sent letters detailing our findings and requesting comment to DCIM head Brigadier General Mohamed Bishr, Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, EU Council President Donald Tusk, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and a representative of the International Maritime Organization. We did not receive any replies in time for inclusion in the report. Human Rights Watch also put questions to the IOM and UNHCR; their responses are reflected in the report.

This report also contains evidence obtained from interviews conducted in Italy in 2016 with migrants and asylum seekers and on board an NGO rescue ship in 2017.

All names of migrant, refugee, and asylum seeker interviewees have been changed for their protection. In all cases, Human Rights Watch told interviewees they would receive no personal service or benefit for their statements and that the interviews were completely voluntary.

Human Rights Watch decided to brief the director of DCIM at the end of the research mission, on issues of ill treatment and inhumane detention conditions. We did not raise individual cases with detention center staff to protect detainees from possible retaliation.

In accordance with international standards, all interviewees under the age of 18 are considered children.

This report only covers detention activities and EU cooperation in western Libya and does not cover the detention regime and coast guard activities in eastern Libya carried out by forces affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Interim Government. While the European Union and EU member states back only the Tripoli-based GNA and do not formally have ties with the rival government in the east, some countries, including Italy, the United Kingdom and France, conduct meetings with General Khalifa Hiftar, the commander of the LNA.


I. Migrants, Asylum Seekers, and Refugees in Libya

Libya has long been a destination for migrants seeking work as well as a transit country for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees seeking to reach the EU.[1] Estimates of how many are in Libya vary significantly. In addition to the 8,000-10,000 migrants and asylum seekers in official detention at the time of our visit, the United Nations estimates that more than 680,000 migrants and asylum seekers live in Libya outside detention; while an unknown number are held in warehouses and other informal detention centers operated by smuggling networks and militias.[2] Within its severely constrained scope of action (see below), the UN refugee agency UNHCR had registered 55,912 asylum seekers and refugees in Libya, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea, as of mid-October 2018.[3]

Following the uprising and armed conflict in 2011 that led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year government, there was a short period of respite before another wave of violence in 2014 overtook much of the country. This led to the collapse of central authority and emergence initially of three, now two, separate authorities competing for legitimacy. The ongoing political turmoil and protracted armed conflicts since 2014 have plunged the country into an economic crisis in which illicit smuggling, including of human beings, has flourished. People smuggling and trafficking is now a multi-million-euro business in the country, a major source of livelihood for many Libyans.[4]

Two governments vie for legitimacy and control of the country. The United Nations Security Council and the European Union recognize the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli, in the west, but not the rival Interim Government based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda, Tobruk and Benghazi. In various parts of the country militias linked to the interior and defense ministries of the GNA have clashed with those linked to the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Interim Government. All efforts to achieve political reconciliation have foundered. In Libya’s vast south, a hub for regional smuggling, Tebu, Tuareg and Arab armed groups fight one another for control of territory and resources. The fighting has decimated the country’s economy and public services, including the public health system, law enforcement, and the judiciary.[5]  Around 200,000 people remain internally displaced by the conflicts.[6] In western Libya, militias operate checkpoints, police neighborhoods, run prisons and provide security for private corporations such as banks and public institutions including ministries, prisons and migrant detention centers. They are also involved in criminal activities including smuggling and extortion.[7] 

Fighting broke out in Tripoli in late August 2018 between armed groups linked to the interior and defense ministries of the GNA. They were competing for control of territory and access to income from vital institutions in the capital. A UN-brokered cease-fire on September 26, 2018, ended the clashes, which claimed the lives of at least 100 people and wounded at least 500, the majority of them civilians.[8] Migrants in at least two detention centers were transferred to other facilities, still in Tripoli, while several hundred were reportedly released from a third. The fighting severely disrupted services provided by NGOs and UN agencies. Because of the insecurity, the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) temporarily reduced its staff and medical activities in DCIM centers in Tripoli.[9]

Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by smugglers, militias and criminal gangs against migrants in Libya for over a decade., including  rapes, beatings and killings, kidnapping for ransom, sexual exploitation, and forced labor. [10] In Libya in July, Kameela, a 23-year-old Somali woman detained in Ain Zara detention center, told us she and her husband were held by smugglers somewhere in southern Libya, along with roughly 400 others, for three months in late 2017 and early 2018. She said she was repeatedly raped. “A big man there, a Libyan, he raped me. My husband couldn’t stop him, they held a gun to his head. Every night he did this to me. If I said, ‘don’t touch me,’ he beat me.” At the time we spoke, Kameela was seven months pregnant. She said the pregnancy was the result of the rape.[11]

Many migrants who contract smugglers willingly to facilitate their migration journey end up victims of trafficking, defined in international law as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons through “the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion...or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control of another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”[12]

There is significant evidence that smugglers operate in varying degrees of collusion with government officials and militias. A confidential UN Panel of Experts report on Libya leaked to the press in February 2018 and reviewed by Human Rights Watch concluded that most smuggling and trafficking groups have links to official security institutions. The Panel of Experts expressed concern in the report “over the possible use of state facilities and state funds by armed groups and traffickers to enhance their control of migration routes.”[13] The panel heard accounts of Eritreans who said that the Special Deterrence Force, a militia affiliated with the GNA Interior Ministry, arrested them and then handed them over to smuggling networks.[14] In June 2018, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on six Libyans accused of human smuggling and trafficking, including Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, the head of the Zawiya coast guard unit, which is affiliated, at least nominally, with the GNA Defense Ministry’s Coast Guard.[15]

In September 2018, the UNHCR reiterated its call on all countries “to allow civilians (Libyan nationals, former habitual residents of Libya and third-country nationals) fleeing Libya access to their territories.” The refugee agency urged all countries to suspend forcible returns to any part of Libya, including anyone rescued or intercepted at sea, and stated that Libya should not be designated as a “safe third country” for the purpose of rejecting asylum applications from people who have transited Libya.[16] UNHCR has not, however, taken a clear position on EU capacity-building programs for the Libyan Coast Guard even though as a matter of policy and practice people  intercepted or rescued by these forces are placed in inhuman and degrading detention that is arbitrary by virtue of being prolonged, indefinite and not subject to judicial review.


Foreigners, regardless of age, without authorization to be in Libya are detained on the basis of laws dating back to the Gaddafi era that criminalize undocumented entry, stay and exit punishable by imprisonment, fines, and forced labor.[17]

Immigration detention in Libya can be indefinite because the law does not specify a maximum term, providing only that detention be followed by deportation. There are no formal procedures in place allowing detainees access to a lawyer or any opportunity to challenge the decision to detain them. Prolonged detention of adults and children other than the period strictly necessary to carry out a lawful deportation and without access to judicial review amounts to arbitrary detention and is prohibited under international law.

Human Rights Watch learned of only one instance where Libyan authorities allegedly freed detainees from immigration detention through a judicial process.  In that case, five Palestinians and two Syrians who had been intercepted at sea and detained at Tajoura center were released after paying fines for illegal entry and exit. The director of Tajoura center told Human Rights Watch these individuals later were on board a rescue ship that disembarked in Spain in June 2018.[18]

The Directorate for Illegal Migration (DCIM), under the GNA Interior Ministry, is nominally responsible for operating official detention centers. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, in July 2018, DCIM head Brigadier General Mohamed Bishr said that 8,672 people were detained in 16 centers, up from 5,200 in April.[19] The IOM estimated at the time that there were more than 9,300 migrants and asylum seekers in official detention.[20]  The number of official centers fluctuates over time; the logic for opening and closing them can be baffling. While centers are staffed with DCIM personnel, most centers are under the effective control of whichever armed group controls the neighborhood where a center is located.

At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, the Ain Zara center was guarded by the militia controlling most of the city of Ain Zara known as Battalion 42, or “al-Sheikh,” after its commander Hakim al-Sheikh. Researchers noted the presence of unmarked armed vehicles parked outside the center and the entry of militia members into the premises. At the Tajoura detention center, a militia known as Katibat al-Dhaman, under command of Mohamed Dreider, is in charge of providing security for the prison complex that houses the DCIM facility and a separate prison under the Justice Ministry. Researchers noted the presence of armed men from the militia within the complex. A unit from the Central Military Region, a GNA-linked armed group predominantly from Misrata, is in charge of security of al-Karareem Facility. Armed men were present within the al-Karareem compound during the visit. At the Zuwara detention center, a militia known as the Zuwara Protection Force, under the Zuwara Military Council, is in charge of providing security for the town including the detention center.

As noted, militias and other armed groups operate an unknown number of unofficial detention centers. One asylum seeker from Darfur told researchers he was held for two weeks in the military camp of Brigade 301, a major Misrata-led and GNA-aligned armed group in Tripoli and was forced to work at no pay.[21] Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides medical and humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum seekers at official detention centers in Libya. In a December 2017 report, the organization explained that “[u]nofficial places of captivity can be taken over and categorized as detention centres overnight, or vice versa…. When new managers or guards take over, the detention regime can change, becoming more or less violent and allowing or barring the provision of services by the UN or NGOs.”[22]

While some of the detainees in DCIM centers were arrested in raids on smuggler camps, private homes, and in stops on the streets, the increase in interceptions at sea by the LCG is swelling numbers at the centers and contributing to greater overcrowding and deteriorating conditions. UNHCR reported a “critical worsening” of conditions, with more rioting and protests as a result.[23] At least 59 out of 107 detainees whom we interviewed in four detention centers in July 2018 said they had been intercepted or rescued by the LCG.

The arbitrary and indefinite nature of the immigration detention system in Libya means there are only discretionary, informal and often dangerous or exploitative ways for people to get out.

Some detainees are released to work in private homes, on farms, or in construction. Some are paid for their labor and then allowed to leave or escape. Human Rights Watch has, however, heard numerous statements of people forced to work for no pay. Issouf, a 31-year-old from Ivory Coast we interviewed aboard an NGO rescue ship in October 2017, was detained briefly in Tajoura detention center in 2016; he got out quickly because he was chosen to do brickwork on a man’s property. “No, no, no, he didn’t pay me. He didn’t let me go; I escaped. You see, you can work and when you’re done they’ll take you back to prison,” Issouf said.[24] Ousmane, a 25-year-old from Mali, also managed to escape after he was taken out of the Abu Salim detention center, where he had been detained for eight months, for work laying bricks.[25] Musa, a 16-year-old detained in the Tajoura facility, told Human Rights Watch, “Sometimes boys can get out to work on a farm. But I don’t want to do that. You work for months and then maybe they sell you to someone else.”[26]

Suleyman, a 30-year-old from Darfur in the Sudan, said he was forced to work without pay for an armed group while he was detained at a DCIM detention center in Tripoli known as Trig el-Matar.

I was taken out of prison to clean streets, institutions and universities, and work at the military camp of Brigade 301, but was not given any money.  I stayed for about 14 days and used to sleep inside the military camp [Brigade 301]. I got one meal a day, sometimes not. Some of us demonstrated, so they took one guy, Nasreddin, and shot him in the leg.[27]

Bribing guards or consular officials to secure release is another way out of detention.[28] A 16-year-old boy who reached Italy in 2017 told Human Rights Watch he had paid to get out of Tajoura detention center, then “went straight from prison to the boat.”[29]

Some detainees attempt risky escapes from detention centers. Detainees at Tajoura center told us several men had attempted an escape a few weeks before our visit, and that while a few managed to get away, guards shot at and injured several others. A detainee at the al-Karareem detention center in Misrata said he was tortured after helping three men escape.[30] Human Rights Watch has also heard about collective punishment following escape attempts. The 16-year-old boy mentioned above, for example, said guards at Tajoura center hit “everyone” after a group of detainees tried to escape.

Some representatives of embassies in Tripoli visit detention centers, or conduct Skype interviews with nationals, to facilitate repatriation. The director of Ain Zara center said most detainees, especially Sudanese nationals, refuse to meet with their embassies, though he recalled one occasion in which a Sudanese government representative convinced a group of Sudanese to accept repatriation. According to a released detainee from Palestine, one Palestinian asylum seeker from Gaza who spent 1.5 years at Trig el-Sikka center in Tripoli, was allegedly deported to Egypt and then onward to Gaza.[31]

We also heard of visits by Somali embassy staff to Ain Zara and Tajoura centers, including earlier on the same day that we visited Tajoura. Somalis are among the nine nationalities UNHCR may register as people of concern given a presumption of protection needs; efforts by Somali officials to identify and repatriate nationals raise serious concerns unless the Somali nationals in question have prior access to UNHCR for a determination of any protection needs or risks upon return.

Until October 2017, UNHCR was able to secure the release of particularly vulnerable asylum seekers—primarily women and children as well as critical and urgent medical cases—into their care in Libya; that year 1,428 people were released into the care of the agency.[32] UNHCR Libya told us that since then Libyan authorities have allowed releases to UNHCR only for the purpose of evacuation to a third country.[33] A UNHCR “transit and departure” center in Tripoli that could accommodate up to 1,000 people out of detention centers stood empty for five months until receiving final authorization from Libyan authorities in early December 2018.[34] The center should allow some freedom of movement to asylum seekers living there.

Finally, UNHCR operates a program to evacuate asylum seekers and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) operates a program to repatriate migrants to their countries of origin out of Libyan detention centers. These programs are discussed in the next chapter.


II. EU-Libya Migration Cooperation

Despite instability in Libya, the European Union (EU) has since 2015 deepened its partnership with the GNA on migration control. This cooperation is rooted in the EU’s ambition to outsource responsibility for migration control to countries outside the EU. Since at least 2016, EU policy-makers and leaders have justified this approach as a political and practical necessity to assert control over Europe’s external borders as well as a humanitarian imperative to prevent dangerous boat migration. In June 2018, EU leaders reaffirmed their commitment to “continue and reinforce this policy to prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015 and to further stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes … to stop smugglers operating out of Libya or elsewhere … to definitely break the business model of smugglers, thus preventing the tragic loss of life.”[35]

The approach has the effect of avoiding the legal responsibilities that arise when migrants and asylum seekers reach EU territory, including territorial waters, or otherwise come under EU jurisdiction. EU law and jurisprudence justly affirms the right to seek asylum, the right to fair procedures, and the right to humane treatment.[36]

Political calculations also influence policy choices. Marco Minniti—Italian interior minister under the government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, promoter of  closer migration cooperation with Libyan authorities and architect of policies to restrict NGO rescue operations in the Mediterranean—argued that “resigning ourselves to the impossibility of regulating migration flows and giving human traffickers the keys to European democracies is not an alternative, this is the heart of problem.”[37] The proposition that harsher migration policies would syphon support from anti-immigrant parties would prove incorrect: Minniti’s Democratic Party lost badly in national elections in early 2018, and his successor Matteo Salvini, of the anti-immigrant League Party, would subsequently block disembarkation from NGO rescue ships, threaten to take migrants rescued by Italian forces back to Libya in violation of international law, and pursue closer collaboration with Libyan authorities.[38]

Financial aid to Libya is designed both to increase the capacity of Libya’s border control, notably by its Coast Guard, and, in recognition of the human rights issues raised, to address chronic and systemic problems in Libya’s detention regime for migrants. The EU has allocated €266 million from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa for migration-related programs in Libya, and an additional €20 million through bilateral assistance.[39] EU financial assistance has supported positive efforts including training, improved registration of migrants and asylum seekers, and help getting a limited number of people out of abusive detention. Nevertheless, this funding has not helped to diminish the widespread and systematic violence and abysmal conditions in migrant detention centers.

Support for Libyan Coast Guard

Building the capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy under the GNA is a central plank in the EU’s containment policy. The EU’s anti-smuggling operation EUNAVFOR MED—also known as Operation Sophia—includes a training program, begun in October 2016, for Libyan Navy and Coast Guard officers, petty officers, and sailors at least nominally under the Libyan Government of National Accord’s Defense Ministry. As of June 2018, 213 Libyan Coast Guard and Navy personnel had participated in training courses, out of 3,385 total personnel.[40] A classified 2018 report from the EU’s Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) indicated that LCG staff includes an “unknown number” of former revolutionary fighters who fought to topple Gaddafi in 2011 and who were incorporated into the LCG after 2012. None of them had had any training at all, according to the report.[41]

Italy has taken the lead in EU efforts to build the capacity of Libyan authorities to secure Libya’s borders and patrol the Mediterranean. A former colonial power in Libya, Italy has deep historical, political, and economic ties with the country, and engaged in significant migration cooperation agreements with the Gaddafi government.[42] The majority of migrants and asylum seekers departing Libya reach Italian shores. Successive Italian governments have complained that other EU countries have failed to share responsibility for legal processing and reception of new arrivals and they have responded to the significant increase in arrivals since 2014  with policies focused on stemming the flows, despite negative rights consequences.[43] More than any other EU country, Italy is investing significant material and political resources to enable and legitimize Libyan authorities to intercept and subsequently detain anyone trying to leave the country by sea.

In February 2017, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA on migration control. Italy has since delivered four patrol boats pursuant to a 2008 agreement and, in August 2018, the Italian parliament voted in favor of a government decree to donate 12 patrol boats to the Libyan Coast Guard, along with €1,370,000 for maintenance of the vessels and training of Coast Guard personnel.[44]  As part of this package, the Italian government delivered in October 2018 a 27-meter patrol boat to “to strengthen capacity in border control and fight against illegal trafficking.”[45]

Italy is carrying out an EU-funded project to assist Libya in setting up a maritime rescue coordination center (MRCC), which is expected to be operational in 2020. In the meantime, a Libyan operations room has been set up aboard an Italian Navy ship docked in Tripoli. Colonel Abu Ajeila Ammar, head of the Libyan Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations, told Human Rights Watch, “We coordinate with MRCCs Rome and Malta, and the operations room is there to enhance the cooperation.”[46]

The Libyan Coast Guard does not have capacity to provide continuous coverage or rapid response in every case of distress in the entire area that Libya unilaterally delineated as its search and rescue zone. In a report leaked in March, the EU’s anti-smuggling operation in the Mediterranean, EUNAVFOR MED, cited a “critical infrastructural situation” in the operations room, limited language and software skills among personnel, fuel and equipment shortfalls.[47] Libyan units have inadequate and insufficient boats, chronic maintenance problems, and fuel shortages that limit their ability to patrol even Libyan territorial waters and quickly reach boats in distress, according to information obtained through Human Rights Watch interviews with Libyan Coast Guard commanders in Tripoli and Sebratha in July 2018.[48]

Relying heavily on technical and surveillance assistance from Italy, the LCG increased the number of interceptions in the first half of 2018. The LCG intercepted 12,490 people in the first seven months of 2018, a 41 percent increase over the same period in 2017.[49] By the end of 2018, the LCG had intercepted 15, 235 people according to UNCHR data, a slightly lower number than in the preceding year.[50]

In June 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN inter-governmental organization, acknowledged a vast Libyan SAR region. In a meeting in April 2018 with a senior IMO official , in which Human Rights Watch discussed the evidence of insufficient capacity, reckless and dangerous behavior by Libyan Coast Guard units, allegations of collusion between these forces and smugglers, and the risks faced by migrants and asylum seekers who are returned to Libya, the official argued that coordination among MRCCs was sufficient and that “you can’t make a blanket statement that Libya is not a place of safety” under the terms of existing maritime law.[51] He explained that the IMO’s role was to register declared SAR regions when the declaration is in conformity with IMO stipulations and is agreed to by neighboring states.[52]

Acknowledgment of a Libyan SAR region coincided with implementation of a hardline approach by Italy’s new government, including closing its ports to nongovernmental rescue groups and intensifying its practice, tested since at least May 2017, of transferring responsibility to Libyan Coast Guard forces in international waters even when there are other, better-equipped vessels, including  its own patrol boats or Italian Navy vessels, closer to the scene.[53] Uncertainty around rescue coordination and disembarkation, as well as prosecutions, ship seizures and administrative acts to block rescue ships in port, forced nongovernmental rescue groups to suspend rescue operations in the central Mediterranean for months.[54] In late November 2018, three NGOs returned to international waters off Libya to perform search and rescue.[55]

Commercial ships are being called upon to respond to situations of distress and put in the position of having to hand migrants and asylum seekers to Libyan Coast Guard forces at sea or disembark people directly in Libya. In several instances, Italy has instructed commercial ships in the initial phase of a rescue only to hand coordination over to Libyan authorities.[56] The resistance and protests of rescued persons against return to Libya illustrate their fears, well-founded, of being forced back to inhuman and degrading detention.[57] On November 20, 2018, Libyan forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to violently remove around 80 people from the cargo ship Nivin in the port of Misrata, after they had refused to disembark for ten days. Acting on instructions from the Italian MRCC, the Nivin had rescued them in international waters and subsequently docked in Misrata.[58] Observers on the ground estimate that 11 people were injured, and that among them were three people with gunshot wounds from live ammunition. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently confirm this information. While 50 were taken to detention centers, 29 were reportedly imprisoned on criminal charges relating to hijacking and piracy.

A Spanish fishing boat, the Nuestra Madre de Loreto, remained at sea for ten days with 11 people it rescued in international waters late November 2018. The boat’s captain refused to follow instructions, including from the Spanish government, to disembark in a Libyan port. Malta agreed to allow disembarkation on December 2, 2018, on the condition everyone would be subsequently transferred to Spain.

The rate of death per attempted crossing has significantly increased. UNHCR estimated that one in 18 people died or went missing in the period January-July 2018 compared to one in every 42 people in the same period in 2017.[59] The IOM also estimated that the rate of death per attempted crossing has increased from 2.1 percent in 2017 to 3.1 percent in 2018. According to the IOM, there were 20 recorded deaths in April and 11 in May 2018, while an estimated 564 people died or went missing in June 2018.[60] Statistical analysis developed by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) on the basis of IOM and UNHCR data demonstrates that the rate of deaths at sea compared to the number of people attempting the voyage rate surged in the absence of NGO rescue patrols from 2.3 percent to 7 percent.[61] An ISPI mapping of major shipwrecks—in which over 15 people died—between June 16-July 31, 2018, indicates that many appear to have taken place in areas patrolled in earlier periods by NGO rescue groups.[62]

Alexandra, 25, mother of two children from Ghana, who had travelled to Libya with her husband Kofi, 32, said they had both been on a boat with 180 people in June and, after the Coast Guard intercepted and disembarked them, they saw dead bodies of migrants:

We were surprised when the Libyan Coast Guard came, we were in the blue sea [a term used by migrants to describe international waters]. There were women and children with us on the boat and water had started to enter the boat we were on. At disembarkation in Khoms port, I saw five dead bodies already there from another ship. They were smelly and there were flies all around. We had to sleep at the port for one night. The bodies of the dead people were not removed for as long as we stayed there.[63]

When interviewed, Alexandra was in detention, as was her husband.

Some interviewees described acts of intimidation or violence by members of the Coast Guard during interceptions. Joanna, 34, from Cameroon and mother of three, said that she was on a boat with 170 people that was already in international waters after 10 hours at sea in early June 2018, when a Coast Guard vessel approached:

Men on the large Libyan boat threw us a rope and at first we refused to tie it to ours. The Libyans shot into the air and threatened us: “If you don’t tie it onto the boat then we will shoot at you.” So we tied it to our boat and they started to move people to their boat.[64]

Ahmed, 26, a Palestinian from Gaza, described a similar incident in May 2018 when the Coast Guard approached the boat he was on after 11 hours at sea, during his second attempt to reach Europe. Ahmed said they were in sight of a large orange-colored ship:

Some people jumped off our boat and started to swim toward the foreign boat.…Two of the three Libyans on board the large rescue ship, one of whom was from the Coast Guard and two who were in military uniform, shot into the water next to where we were. They also came very close to our boat and started to make waves to scare us. People got scared and finally started to board their ship. They took us to Khoms.[65]

This may have been an incident reported by SOS MEDITERRANEE, whose rescue ship the Aquarius is orange and white, on May 7, in which the crew observed people jumping in the water. The rescue group said that the Libyan Coast Guard declined their repeated offers of assistance and ordered the ship to leave the area.[66]

Italy’s then ambassador to Libya, Giuseppe Perrone, told Human Rights Watch that training had led to “significant improvement” in LCG performance. He acknowledged that coast guards were “probably overly aggressive [at times],” but said, “we have confronted the LCG about their aggressive behavior. They are defensive, saying they need to protect migrants when lives are at risk. We are trying to shape a narrative whereby they treat Africans with respect.”[67]

Humanitarian Assistance in Detention Centers

EU institutions and member states have repeatedly declared that they do not fund Libya’s Directorate for Illegal Migration (DCIM) directly, but rather channel all funding to UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations to improve conditions in the centers and provide material and medical assistance to detainees.[68] The Italian government has channeled €2 million through its development agency to seven Italian NGOs to provide assistance to detainees in three detention centers in Tripoli, and has solicited bids for a €4.2 million program in five centers outside Tripoli (Gharyan, Sebratha, Zuwara, Khoms, and Janzour).[69] Programs in detention centers include providing material (mattresses, blankets, clothing), food, hygiene kits for men and women, medical care (including anti-scabies campaigns), and assistance to improve general sanitary conditions.

Staff members of international humanitarian organizations operating in Libya described to Human Rights Watch poor coordination and even disputes among humanitarian actors, including UN agencies, and the lack of a conflict-sensitive framework that requires assessment of the interaction between humanitarian assistance and the conflict context to avoid negative impacts. More broadly, these observers expressed concern that humanitarian assistance to detainees in official detention centers, vital as it may be, served to prop up a system of abusive, arbitrary detention and provide a fig leaf for EU migration control policies.[70] These interlocutors requested anonymity to protect their access to detention centers and relations with Libyan and EU authorities.

IOM and UNHCR staff are authorized to assist disembarkation in 12 official ports along the western coast between Misrata and Zuwara. Each agency is responsible for six disembarkation points, where they provide basic material assistance (hygiene kits), quick medical checks, although not systematically for all who are disembarked, and register basic information about each person, mostly limited to the name and nationality.

Accounts from individuals intercepted by the LCG suggest that these UN agencies are not present at all disembarkations, either because they take place in unofficial locations, remote locations, or during the late hours of the night, or because the agencies are unable to send staff.

Mulugeta, a 27-year-old from Ethiopia who was detained in Zuwara when we interviewed him, said there were no international organizations present when he was disembarked in that city in June 2018. A group of men wearing a mix of uniforms and civilian clothes took all their money and cell phones, and one of them beat Mulugeta when he asked for his possessions, he said. “They made us keep our heads down, there is no way of knowing who hit me.”[71]

Solomon, 20, from Sierra Leone, whose younger brother was among several who drowned during his last attempt to cross to Europe by boat on June 29, said during an interview that upon disembarkation, DCIM staff took all of the people’s phones and that upon arrival at the detention center, they took some people’s money and did not return any of the personal effects.[72]

UN agencies are trying to systematize registration of all migrants at disembarkation points, using electronic tablets to record basic information. Once people are placed in detention, they may be transferred to other centers without proper record-keeping, or leave the center in a variety of ways, including transfer into the hands of smuggling networks, payment of a bribe, removal by militias for forced labor, or escape. Detention centers do not systematically make a record of the name, nationality and age of every person who is transferred into the center. This means DCIM, but also UN agencies and humanitarian organizations present in detention centers, easily lose track of people and are unable to find them again.[73]

In early September 2018, UNHCR issued a press release reporting that smugglers and traffickers were impersonating their staff at disembarkation points as well as other locations.[74] The account of Hawa, a 19-year-old from Mali, of her disembarkation in Khoms in early June suggests there may have been smugglers present. She said she was “sure that some people managed to pay to escape from the port.… They gave us a cell phone to call a Libyan contact to arrange release. I tried to call but then I had to get on the bus.”

A detainee in the Misrata detention center may also have met impersonators at disembarkation. She told Human Rights Watch that “UN police took our money” at disembarkation in Khoms in early July. “My husband had €250 and they took it,” she said.[75]

Evacuation and Repatriation

In parallel with its collective efforts to prevent boat migration from Libya, the EU is underwriting UN programs to help migrants and asylum seekers get out of arbitrary detention in Libya. While these programs have helped large numbers of people escape inhumane treatment and conditions, they have done little to address the systemic problems with immigration detention in Libya and serve as a fig leaf to cover the injustice of the EU containment policy.

With EU financial support, the UN refugee agency UNHCR began evacuating particularly vulnerable asylum seekers out of Libya to a transit center in Niamey, Niger, in December 2017. In Niamey, asylum seekers undergo full refugee status determination for the purposes of resettlement. By the end of November 2018, 2,069 had been evacuated to Niger, with an additional 312 evacuated directly to Italy and 95 to a UNHCR emergency transit center in Romania.[76] After an evacuation on October 16, UNHCR stated that their “staff endured significant security challenges and restrictions on movement to complete the evacuation as tensions amongst rival militias increase, resulting in intermittent exchanges of fire and rockets falling on Tripoli airport.”[77]

Between December 2017 and mid-November 2018, only 860 refugees were resettled out of Niger to seven EU countries (Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), Switzerland, Canada, and the United States. In addition, 104 people were resettled directly out of Libya to Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden. As of mid-November 2018, nine EU countries, Norway, Switzerland, and Canada had pledged to resettle 3,886 people directly out of Libya and via Niger.[78]   

The UNHCR faces severe constraints. Although Libya is a party to the 1969 Organization of the African Union Refugee Convention, it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has, as yet, no formal mechanism to protect individuals fleeing persecution, not to mention the practical and security obstacles to doing so in Libya at present.

Though it has operated in the country since 1991, UNHCR does not yet have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of National Accord that clarifies its mandate, a standard procedure in countries where UNHCR maintains an office. Negotiations on an MoU continue with little progress. Libyan authorities allow the UNHCR to register asylum seekers and refugees from only nine countries: Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia (only members of the Oromo ethnic group), Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen and Palestine. Asylum seekers from these nine countries are not exempt from detention; according to UNHCR, over 3,700 nationals of these nine countries were disembarked on Libya’s western coast during the first eight months of 2018 and placed in detention.[79] This means the agency cannot register as asylum seekers persons from other countries with protection needs.  As a consequence, they cannot benefit from evacuation.

UNHCR is also facilitating the return to asylum seekers currently in detention in Libya to the countries where they first registered with the agency. According to UNHCR Libya, three countries—Sudan, Ethiopia, and Chad—have agreed to receive people back in these circumstances and the agency is continuing advocacy with other countries.[80]

The EU and its member states also provide significant support to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) program for “voluntary humanitarian repatriation” from Libya to countries of origin. Since January 2017, IOM has repatriated around 30,000 people.[81] Beneficiaries receive a small amount of cash and assistance for their reintegration including counselling, support for training or schooling and, in some cases, seed money to start an income-generating activity. The range of reintegration measures varies among destination countries.[82]

The VHR program, as it is known, provides a vital service to people whose migration dream has turned into a nightmare and who want to return to their home country safely and are able to do so. Human Rights Watch spoke to numerous detainees who had experienced devastating losses and abuse along their journeys, and who wished to return home.

However, the fact that access to VHR is one of the few ways detainees can regain freedom from the abysmal conditions and treatment in detention fundamentally undermines the voluntary nature of the program.

Isaac, a 21-year-old from Nigeria detained in the Zuwara DCIM center, said:

Here, the guards told me I can’t get out unless I agree to go home. So, I’m left with no option. If I stay … it’s just a matter of time before I change my mind and go. IOM came, they told all the Nigerians to come outside. IOM said they’d give us €50.[83]

Hamza, 31, from Morocco told us violence by the guards at the Zuwara facility influenced his decision to register for repatriation with an embassy official the day before we spoke. “At the beginning, I didn’t want to return home. Now I have changed my mind. Other Moroccans want to leave too.”[84]

A humanitarian worker in Libya who wished to remain anonymous said IOM is essentially deporting people on behalf of the Libyan authorities, free of charge. These returns, and UNHCR evacuations, he said, are not real long-term solutions, and are not working to empty detention centers given the rate of interceptions followed by automatic detention. He argued that decriminalizing irregular entry and stay, and the creation of pathways to regularization of status in Libya, are key to addressing abuses against migrants in the country.[85]

Isaac began on his journey with his brother, with a plan to work in Italy to save money and then study in the United Kingdom to become a lawyer. He wished to support his widowed sick mother. Smugglers in Sebha, a southern city that serves as a major hub for migrants, held him and his brother captive where, Isaac said, they killed his brother and burned Isaac on his stomach and left arm to extort more money out of his family. “I had to call my mother to ask her for money, but she didn’t have it. She cried. That’s the last time I spoke with her. She doesn’t even know my brother is dead and I am alive.”[86]

Because Isaac did not fear for his life or his freedoms back home, he had the option to return to Nigeria as a way to escape detention, though returning would end his migration dreams. However, others risk being forced to return to places where they do face serious risks. UNHCR and IOM assert they have a mutual referral system but given the constraints on the UNHCR’s scope of action it is clear that some people in need of protection have few options.

Some detainees who might otherwise apply for asylum may opt to participate in IOM’s return program, a quicker option than registering with UNHCR and awaiting evacuation. Somalis, who are able to register with UNHCR, are reportedly signing up in large numbers for repatriation. On November 7, 2018, IOM repatriated 124 Somalis to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.[87] UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean route Vincent Cochetel has commented on Twitter that IOM and UNHCR provide joint counselling to Somalis, and that many “left their country due to serious security problems…. Destitution, hunger, security concerns [in Libya] & lack of alternatives lead them to return.”[88]

IOM Libya argues its program is “absolutely voluntary in nature” and that its staff ensures that migrants “take informed decisions about their return, which includes that they have no fear of persecution upon returning.”[89]

UNHCR and IOM do not appear to have sufficient capacity to respond to the overwhelming needs of detained migrants and asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch heard repeated complaints from migrants and asylum seekers, but also from Libyan detention authorities, that IOM and UNHCR came only rarely and were not able to register enough people when they did visit. A group of 13 Ivorian women detained in the Ain Zara center told us on July 5, 2018, that they had been intercepted by the Coast Guard in mid-June. They wished to return home and were frustrated that they had not yet been registered by IOM.[90] Human Rights Watch witnessed a protest at Tajoura detention center of a group largely composed of Darfuri men asking to be registered by UNHCR.

In response to queries about their capacity, both IOM and UNHCR detailed their mandate and achievements. IOM Libya told Human Rights Watch their teams visit detention centers in Tripoli every day, and regularly arrange visits to centers located in other cities to offer “humanitarian direct assistance, health services, protection screenings (including referrals to UNHCR of the individuals who wish to seek international protection), and registration for VHR.”[91] UNHCR launched a registration campaign in October 2018, during which it registered 660 people, including Darfuris, at Tajoura center over the course of two days. The campaign has included all detention centers in Tripoli and the mountain town of Zintan and will be expanded to include centers in cities to the west of Tripoli and in and around Misrata.[92]


III. Abuses in Libyan Detention Centers

This place is like hell. They pretend to be nice people but then they flog [shock] you with electricity. Three times they beat me, when getting food. They make us sit in the sun or stand up and look straight at the sun. We protested so they hit us. They take people to the front room to beat them. They took me there, they tied my hands and then they beat me on the bottom of my feet. They hit my friend in the head.
– Elijah, 26, from Sierra Leone, detained in Misrata, July 10, 2018

In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported on migrant detention centers in Libya. At the time, in eight out of the nine centers visited, we witnessed massive overcrowding, dire sanitary conditions, and inadequate medical care. We documented torture, including beatings with all manner of implements, burning with cigarettes, electric shocks, and whippings while being hung from a tree.[93] Visits to four official detention centers in July 2018 confirmed that conditions and treatment remain nightmarish despite EU-funded efforts by international nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies.


Human Rights Watch visited four DCIM centers in early July 2018. These were Tajoura and Ain Zara centers, both located on the outskirts of Tripoli, Zuwara center in the town of the same name near the border with Tunisia, and the center in the area of al-Karareem, near Misrata, a city to the east of Tripoli. We witnessed overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inadequate health care. We heard about low quantity and poor-quality food and water in all centers.

While women are accommodated separately from men in all four centers, none of the facilities conformed with international guidelines on conditions and treatment of women in detention. All guards are male. NGOs are able to provide only limited prenatal and maternal healthcare, menstrual hygiene supplies are insufficient. Survivors of sexual violence before or during detention have extremely limited options for physical and psychological care. Accounts collected by human rights organizations and UN agencies indicate that sexual violence is a widespread phenomenon along the migration journey, in Libya, and in detention centers.[94]  

In every center, staff complained of material shortages, security and health concerns for the guards, including lack of health insurance and vaccinations for staff, and disregard by international humanitarian organizations for the needs of staff. All said that the government was late in paying private contractors who provided food, water and cleaning material, which adversely affected the quantity and quality of food provided to detainees. In Misrata, the director told us that instead of spending 10 Libyan dinars per detainee (US$7) per day, catering companies were spending only 1,5 LYD (US$1).[95] As a result, none of the centers provided fresh fruit and vegetables or meat whatsoever.

Elijah said guards forced detainees to sit on the ground and stare at the sun.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

No detention center has healthcare professionals on staff. Humanitarian organizations, as well as UN agencies, provide some medical attention, including maternal and post-partum care, but their access is limited.

In Misrata, Tajoura, and Zuwara we heard disturbing accounts from both adults and children of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings and use of electric shocks. Detainees in all centers said that guards treated them roughly and insulted them.

To protect migrants and asylum seekers against possible retaliation by detention center staff, Human Rights Watch decided to share deep concerns about inhumane conditions and ill-treatment with Mohamed Bishr, the head of the DCIM, at the end of the mission rather than with prison directors at the time of the visits.[96] A week later, Col. Bishr circulated a letter to all directors of DCIM facilities instructing them to respect Libyan laws and standards and international protocols in their treatment of all detainees, cooperate with civil society organizations and government institutions on human rights issues, and establish recreational activities for migrants such as beach outings and children’s activities.[97]

Col. Bishr said he suspended three DCIM staff from duty at three detention centers and referred them to the General Prosecutor for investigations after complaints of misconduct.[98] Human Rights Watch did not visit these three centers in 2018 and is not aware of any disciplinary measures taken with respect to staff at the four centers we did visit.

Col. Bishr did not respond to a November 13, 2018 letter from Human Rights Watch detailing our findings and requesting updates on implementation of guidelines and any disciplinary measures.


Misrata is a major city 209 kilometers east of Tripoli. The migrant detention center is located in a former school in al-Karareem, just south of the city. We were allowed access to two floors of one part of the building. Men are held on the ground floor, in rooms that open onto a hallway that is accessed by a barred and locked iron door. We walked through the hallway, navigating the men standing, sitting, and lying on the floor all along the space. The bathroom at the end of the hallway has three or four stalls, with feces-encrusted holes in the floor. Upstairs we visited the women’s section, composed of two large rooms with mattresses and belongings strewn on the floor. We did not see the women’s toilets. Authorities allowed us to interview detainees individually and outside of the building. Many men and women clamored to be interviewed; we were only able to interview a few.

At the time of our visit, the center in al-Karareem held 472 detainees, according to the director: 381 men, 64 women, and 27 children up to 12 years old living with their female relatives in the women’s section. The director said there were no children between 12 and 18 years of age. He acknowledged overcrowding but implied that poor material conditions were the fault of NGOs:

There is overcrowding, people sleep in corridors. The food, living conditions and accommodation are bad, bad, bad…NGOs haven’t brought anything since the beginning of the year. We need blankets, mattresses, cleaning material. I’m supposed to burn the mattresses when people leave but we don’t have enough. In some cases, two detainees have to share one mattress. [99]

The director added that they lack baby food and sanitary pads for women, forcing staff members to buy it “from our own pockets or get it from charity.”[100]

Many interviewees complained about not being allowed outside and about poor-quality food and water. Marie-Claire, 30, from Cameroon who was among a group intercepted at sea in mid-April 2018 and who was transferred to the center in Misrata a week later, said “They [the guards] are violent. When they come, they have guns, she said. “I was never allowed to go out, I have been locked in [since I arrived]. No one goes out [to the court yard].”[101]

Oputa, a 31-year-old Nigerian woman who had been in the center for two weeks after being intercepted by the Coast Guard, said,

They beat you with a pipe if you’re not in a straight line [for food]. They never hit me, I avoid it. I often don’t go out to get food because I’m afraid of being hit. They beat the men a lot. At breakfast the men go out first. One man, they beat him so bad and they gave him electric shocks. They put him in a room near us, we could hear him screaming. Maybe it was last Thursday, a man from Sierra Leone tried to escape but they caught him. They beat him unconscious. We protested, all the women were shouting and screaming. Since then they’ve limited the beatings.[102]

She recounted that a guard had beaten a woman with a stick embedded with nails that cut her hand, the week before our visit. The same guard, Oputa said, had also hit another woman, “but in that case at least he apologized.”

Kemi, a Nigerian woman who was seven-months’ pregnant, told us a guard beat her with a hose as she was going down the stairs to get water. “He said I had to go back up, and he beat me on the arm with a hose.”[103] Hawa, 19, from Mali, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when we spoke. She also said a guard hit her, the day before we spoke, as she was going up and down the stairs to exercise. “He hit me with his hand on my back. He said he would take me away to punish me.”[104]

Alexandra, 25, from Ghana, said,

There is ill treatment here and beatings. They [the guards] lock women inside for days. They shout at us, they beat women and flog women on the hand even if you are pregnant. One man tried to escape. They tied his neck like a dog to his legs so he cannot move his legs. They beat him seriously. He was crying like a woman. If someone tries to escape, they will beat everyone who has the same nationality as that person.[105]

Both women and men told us about a “lonely jail” on the second floor, near the women’s area, where detainees are put as punishment. Abdul, a 20-year-old from Darfur was put there after he helped three men escape:

It was one Sudanese, one Egyptian, and one from Sierra Leone. They caught the guy from Sierra Leone and beat him on the bottom of his feet and on his lower leg with a hose. They beat us in the front room, three of us. They beat me on the bottom of the feet and on my legs to get me to confess I had helped them escape. I said no, but then the other guys said it was me because they were so afraid. Then they took me to the “lonely jail,” the room in front of where the girls are. They locked us in there. The men and women shouted for us to be released. I saw the guards down below [out the window] pointing guns at the women saying they would shoot. There were nine other guys in the lonely jail, I don’t know why they were there. I spent five hours in there.[106]

A few interviewees spoke of men being subjected to electric shocks. Elijah, a 26-year-old from Sierra Leone, said there were at least four men he said were permanently affected by the application of electric shocks.

There is a man from Mali, they shocked him with electricity two months ago. He just sits on the floor. He used to speak normally, now he just stares straight ahead. They took him to the hospital but he came back in the same condition. There are three other men like that here because of electric shocks.

Human Rights Watch saw one of these men, sitting in the hallway near the toilets, sitting rigid with knees bent, hands resting on bent knees, staring straight ahead.

Ahmed, 26, from Palestine, said he left Gaza three years ago after being threatened, imprisoned and ill-treated by Hamas. He said he and others were beaten at the Misrata center. "A group from Sudan tried to escape while they were at the clinic, so the guards rounded up everyone who was at the doctor’s and beat them with plastic tubes. I was beaten a bit, but others were beaten like animals. It was collective punishment.”[107]

In a follow-up phone call after his release, Ahmed said he had been transferred to Trig el-Sikka, a detention center in Tripoli, just two days after the Human Rights Watch visit where he had been held for over two months and where he had suffered ill treatment.[108]   

Two detainees said that it was possible to bribe the authorities in order to be released from al-Karareem. Naser, 48, from Syria, said “I cannot go back to Syria, I will be executed. In this place they treat you the same as a terrorist. There is no mercy or hope. But you can bribe your way out of this prison.”[109] Ahmed, the Palestinian, added, “a Sudanese and an Egyptian bribed their way out. UNHCR knows that I am in this center, so the prison authorities will not accept for me to pay my way out.”[110]


Zuwara is 118 kilometers to the west of Tripoli along the coast, near the Tunisian border. Until recently, it was a smuggling hub and a major departure point for boats heading towards Europe. The center, composed of connected one-story buildings, is located on a dirt road outside town. The women and young children are held in a wing with three rooms of which only two were in use, with open doors onto a hallway that ends at a barred door. The men are held in a separate wing that contains 15 cells, seven of which Human Rights Watch viewed from the iron-grated door at the entrance of the wing.

The director of the center told us there were 590 detainees at the time of our visit, including 18 women and 7 children, while the center has an official capacity of 450. He said the largest group of around 150 were from Nigeria, and there were around 111 men from Bangladesh. He said the prison management had not requested transfers to other facilities because a group of over 100 Nigerians was due to be repatriated by IOM in the following days, adding that IOM had also promised to repatriate soon 30 Bangladeshis while it remained unclear when the rest of the group would be repatriated. The director said the Bangladeshis, as well as 60 Malians, had all accepted voluntary repatriation after Skype interviews with their respective embassies. Transfers between Zuwara and Tripoli were difficult because of migrants’ attempts to flee and damage to the interior of the buses, he added.[111] Human Rights Watch found unaccompanied minors among the children held at the facility.

The director cited serious material shortages: “We need blankets, beds, hygiene kits. We don’t have a battery for the generator. I’m supposed to burn and replace beds when people leave but we don’t have enough. DCIM doesn’t give us anything.”[112]

While the 18 women and 7 children had sufficient room in their spartan rooms, the men’s section was extremely overcrowded. Human Rights Watch staff was unable to move beyond the iron-barred door and enter the hallway because men sitting or standing occupied practically every available space. All of the rooms off the hallway were filled with men who were kept indoors almost all the time despite the stifling heat. The director justified this by saying he did not have enough staff to guard such a large number of men in the facility’s courtyard. Women and children were also allowed outside only rarely. In May, the humanitarian organization MSF reported that there were over 800 people in the center at the time; it is impossible to imagine how so many more people could have fit in the spaces we saw. MSF put the center’s capacity at 200.[113]

Interviews with 29 detainees in the center confirmed that they are locked inside the wing—rooms and one hallway—virtually all day, allowed out only to wash in outdoor basins. One detainee from Ethiopia did not possess any trousers, explaining that he had lost his clothes while at sea around two weeks prior to our visit and was only wearing a shirt and a towel around his midriff. Samuel, a 29-year-old tailor from Nigeria, said, “We only come outside to wash, and not every day. They treat us like criminals. They lock us in the rooms, it’s very hot. There’s no ventilation. There is not enough space for everyone to lie down; we have to take turns.” In tentative English, Aman, a 20-year-old Eritrean, estimated there were over 40 people in his cell and said that they were “never outside, always inside.” Aman explained he left his native Eritrea because “no justice, no democracy, no peace, no education. I left because I had to be a soldier. If I go back, they’ll shoot me.”[114]

Six interviewees said guards beat detainees indiscriminately when the guards intervened in fighting in the overcrowded cells. Two others said they were threatened with beatings. Isaac, 21, from Nigeria, said, “They never let us out … it’s kind of suffocating. Some of the guards are caring, others force us inside the cells [from the hallway] when we’re making too much noise. They hit us when people fight.”[115] Idriss, another 21-year-old Nigerian, said, “The guards use sticks to beat people.”[116]

Hamza, 31, from Morocco, who was intercepted at sea in March 2018 together with a group of 120 people and again in May, said, “It’s very hot and we get little food. If there is a problem between two men, they will shut all the doors of the cells to teach us a lesson. They close us in for many hours, even during meals. They will beat us with wooden sticks or plastic tubes.”[117]

Magdi, 32, from Egypt, who had been at the center for 25 days at the time of our visit, was wearing his clothes inside out. “There are ticks and lice stuck on my clothes and I have an itch. We are allowed outside to shower every ten days or so. There is very little water,” he said. “Sometimes there are beatings. You cannot talk freely, they [the guards] are very tough and will shout ʻShut up!ʼ or ʻBe quiet!ʼ Sometimes they use wooden sticks and sometimes they use slippers to beat people.”[118]

Magdi also stated that the Zuwara police directorate stole from him. “I was held at a house in Zuwara [by smugglers] when I was arrested by the Zuwara Police Directorate. The police took my passport and money. They took all of my things and did not return anything.”[119]


Located to the east of Tripoli city center, the Tajoura center is located within a large compound comprising various warehouse-type buildings and another prison under the authority of the Justice Ministry known as al-Dhaman. At the time of our visit, on July 8, 2018, the director told us there were over 1,100 in total, including about 1,000 men, 100 women, and 26 children under the age of 14 detained in the center. All children over the age of 14 are counted as adults.

Detainees included Arab nationals and people from sub-Saharan Africa, including Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Cameroon. According to the director, the majority of people were brought to the center after being intercepted or rescued at sea, some after multiple attempts to cross it. He mentioned the case of one Sudanese woman with two children who was “arrested” at sea on June 10, 2018, detained briefly at Tajoura, only to be brought back to the center after a second attempt to reach Europe on July 1. It was unclear how the woman left the center after her first failed attempt to reach Europe by boat.[120]

Mattresses on the floor in the women’s section of the Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch was able to enter briefly only three of the buildings, two sections where women and children were detained, and the other where men were held. The sanitary installations in the section that researchers visited were dire.

Just as we walked to towards the buildings where people are detained, a group of detainees began a protest to demand registration by the UNHCR. According to the director, 600 Sudanese nationals had gone on hunger strike the day before our visit protesting slow registration procedures. He said that all of them were asking for resettlement and despite offering to release some of them, including a pregnant woman, they all refused. A group of roughly 20 men stood in a semi-circle holding signs, one of which read: If Death is a Solution for Refugees, then Welcome to Death. The center staff prohibited us from taking photographs of the protest. Raheem, a 22-year-old from Darfur who said he had been detained in Tajoura for one year, said, “We are losing our minds just waiting. UNHCR registers Eritreans but then they wait for months. They don’t normally register us from Darfur. If this is the way it’s going to be, then don’t even save us at sea. Just let us die. That would be better than here.”[121]

A group of detainees from Darfur surreptitiously handed Human Rights Watch a note expressing deep frustration and a sense that UNHCR “doesn’t care about Darfur Refugee Issue.” According to the note, the group was arrested by the authorities in Sebratha in October 2017, when the victory of one militia over another in fighting that engulfed the city led to the discovery of roughly 14,000 people being held in smuggling warehouses.[122] They were detained in Gharyan center for four months, then transferred to Trig el-Matar center, which is on the road to the airport. They were held there for three months before being sent to Tajoura center in April 2018. None of them have been registered by UNHCR. “We spent long period we don’t know our distiny [sic] & we still waiting helps from organizations for our safety…we hope from UNHCR make care about our issue and get us out of here to safty [sic] place…(Thanks you very much) please help us.”[123]

Excerpt from hand-written letter given to Human Rights Watch by a group of men from Darfur detained at Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

UNHCR told Human Rights Watch it had registered 660 people at Tajoura in late October, including Darfuris.[124]

While we were conducting interviews, a commotion broke out in the women’s section. A young woman had strung a rope up in the bathroom and attempted to hang herself. After she was taken down, Human Rights Watch researchers saw her and another woman having what appeared to be seizures, lying on the concrete floor, eyes rolling in their heads, and frothing at the mouth while other women wailed for help. Like other centers, Tajoura does not have staff medical personnel and no doctor working with an NGO or UN agencies was present at the time. The center’s staff said they had called an ambulance. As this drama was unfolding, another woman strung a rope in the bathroom and had to be deterred. Guards did not provide any assistance to the women prone on the ground; we had to leave before medical personnel arrived.

Many individual and small group interviews indicated that detainees are locked inside all the time and not allowed outdoors except when visitors come. A Human Rights Watch researcher entered a large hangar divided into two rooms scattered with mattresses and spoke briefly with a crowd of roughly 50 Bangladeshi men in the stifling heat. One of them said simply, “They don’t let us out.” A guard stopped the interview.

Men in crowded living space at Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

Interviewees said they were given only pasta, every day, shoveled into large metal plates, one for every four people. A group of men laughed when we mentioned that the director of the center told us that the chicken-based meal we saw detainees preparing was for all the detainees. That food is for the guards, they said.

Several interviewees, including one child, said guards were violent.

Edward, a 16-year-old from Sierra Leone traveling on his own, had been detained in Tajoura for two months when we spoke. He said guards beat him two days before we met: “I was just standing inside … they came and flogged us, me and most of my friends. They insult us in Arabic. The day before, the UNHCR was here and we wanted to talk to them. The guards stopped us. Then the next day they beat us.”[125]

Kwame, 27, from Ghana had been living and trying to work in Tripoli but lost his right leg below the knee in a violent robbery in 2017. Desperate to reach Europe to get an artificial leg, he attempted the crossing in early May 2018 but his rubber boat was intercepted by the Coast Guard. He had been in Tajoura center for roughly two months. He told us a guard had hit him repeatedly in the face because he didn’t move quickly enough.[126]

Muneeb, a 22-year-old from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, said three men and one woman died from lack of food and water during the three days they spent at sea the fourth and last time he attempted the crossing, in April. He was taken to Tajoura center after disembarkation. “On the second day, they [the guards] beat us with sticks,” he said.[127]

A group of men told Human Rights Watch that several men had been injured in an escape attempt in mid-June 2018. They claimed that these men were being held in adjacent buildings to which Human Rights Watch was not given access. When asked about an escape attempt, Mahmoud Ali Al-Taweer, head of Administration and Media for the center, told us they caught some but others did manage to escape, and added only that “Libyan law allows us to use force as necessary to conduct our duties, but we didn’t [in this case].”[128] A humanitarian organization confirmed to Human Rights Watch that one man broke a leg and another suffered severe head injuries in an escape attempt from Tajoura in this time-frame.[129]

One detainee spoke of exploitation by the authorities. Amina, a Sudanese mother of four from Darfur who has been detained with her family since the Coast Guard forces intercepted their rubber boat in June 2018, said her husband was taken outside the prison to do physical work but was not paid for it. Instead, he was given water, a piece of bread, a tomato and an onion.[130]

Human Rights Watch had documented accounts of violence in Tajoura center before the visit. Wilfried, a man from Benin we interviewed on board a rescue ship in October 2017 told us guards beat him repeatedly while he was detained there, including after he was seen speaking with MSF staff.[131] Nourah, a 26-year-old Ivorian woman, told us in June 2016 that a guard repeatedly assaulted her sexually when she was detained in Tajoura in June-July 2015.[132]

Ain Zara

Beyond the low walls and metal gate, Ain Zara detention center is a large compound with two large warehouse-type buildings, each divided into two cavernous rooms covered in mattresses and meager personal belongings. The two buildings are separated by an expanse of dirt, with few trees. On the day we visited, women and children were sitting under trees while most men remained crowded either inside their building or in the doorway.

Women sit outside at Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

The director of the facility, Tarek Bahij Moussa, said the administration allows detainees outside during the entire day, partly because the buildings become too hot and power outages are frequent. He said, however, this posed security issues.

At the time of our visit on July 5, 2018, the center director told us there were 706 detainees, including 464 men, 191 women, and 51 children under fourteen years of age. According to the director, the official current capacity of the detention facility was for 2000 people, and that authorities hoped to raise it to 6000 after construction works. The director counted all children over the age of 14—around 100 on the day we visited—as adults. Everyone at Ain Zara was from sub-Saharan Africa. The director said they transfer migrants from Arab countries to Trig el-Sikka center. He said everyone detained at Ain Zara had been intercepted or rescued at sea by the Coast Guard and that UNHCR or IOM had registered everyone’s name upon disembarkation.[133] However, an Ethiopian detainee at Ain Zara told Human Rights Watch that he had not been intercepted at sea but rather arrested by unidentified forces at a checkpoint in Tripoli. Human Rights Watch found that among the children held at Ain Zara there were unaccompanied minors.

Men in one of the large hangar rooms at the Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

Sanitary conditions were abysmal. The toilets in the men’s compound that Human Rights Watch was able to visit were filthy and smelled bad; only five of the ten stalls worked. According to the director, only 15 out of 40 latrines were functional during our visit and assured us the remaining stalls would be fixed the following week. The women in one of the two large rooms where they are held said there were only two toilets for 100 women. Many detainees complained to researchers about the long intervals between meals and inadequate drinking water. They also complained that meals lacked variety, consisting mostly of boiled pasta. The director acknowledged that there were “delays sometimes” with the delivery of food and said that one woman attempted to commit suicide because of the lack of infant formula for her child.

A doctor for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization providing support to detainees at Ain Zara, told Human Rights Watch the lack of proper ventilation was a major issue. The most common ailments are tuberculosis and scabies, both of which are exacerbated by overcrowding. IRC provides prenatal and maternal care but indicated that the needs of the many pregnant women and children in Ain Zara requiring medical attention could not be sufficiently addressed. He expressed concern at the increase in the detainee population. “When we started working here in May there were fewer than 350 people; 250 people arrived just last week.” According to the director, the center management requested DCIM to prepare an isolation chamber for people with contagious diseases, but to no avail.

During four separate group talks with detainees from Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan (Darfur), they complained mostly about a slow pace of registration of asylum seekers by international organizations.[134]

One Eritrean man, who had spent three years in total in Libya, said “UNHCR and IOM visit every week and promise to register. None of the Eritreans here have been registered. No one wants to stay in Libya or go back to Eritrea. People develop a depression. This is a dog’s life.”[135]

Large hangar where men are detained at Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

The August clashes in Tripoli directly affected detainees in the Ain Zara center. Via WhatsApp messages to a journalist, detainees said that on the morning of August 27, 2018, as the fighting drew near, the guards abandoned their posts, leaving the detainees without food, water, or protection.[136] That night, unidentified men came with around 20 vehicles and allegedly took around 100 Somalis to an unknown destination. Others in the center refused to go because they weren’t sure who the men were. One of the Somalis who left the facility with the unidentified armed group managed to call a detainee still at the center to report that they had been locked inside a house, and then he stopped communicating.[137] The remaining 300-400 detainees were transferred the following evening, after a tense situation in which uniformed men fired guns in the air and at the ground within the compound, and beat them with iron and wooden batons to force them onto buses that took them to the Abu Salim detention center for migrants.[138]

UNHCR and IOM said they assisted Libyan authorities to evacuate around 600 migrants and asylum seekers from Ain Zara and another detention center in Salaheddin. They were transferred to two other detention centers, Abu Salim and Trig el-Matar, also in Tripoli.[139]  IOM said 290 migrants were released when the fighting began, though it was not clear which center or centers they left.[140]

Children in Detention

Child migrants and asylum seekers, whether traveling with family members or alone, are detained in the same appalling conditions as adults. Our interviews and reporting by UNICEF, the UN agency for the rights of the child, suggest that all children rounded up in raids, stopped on the streets, or intercepted at sea are detained.[141] According to UNHCR, nearly 1,200 children (both accompanied and unaccompanied) were disembarked in Libya and put in detention during the first seven months of 2018.[142] There are no reliable figures for the overall number of children in immigration detention in Libya.

All of the centers Human Rights Watch visited had separate quarters for women and children. The definition of a child, however, varied from center to center and never conformed to international law, which defines all persons under the age of 18 as children. In Ain Zara and Tajoura centers, the directors registered as children only those up to 14 years of age, even though the director of Tajoura acknowledged that UNICEF considers children up to age 17 as children.[143] In Misrata the director said they held children as young as two months and up to 10 or 12 years, but it was unclear whether there were any children between 12-18 held at the center and whether they considered them to be adults or minors.[144] It appears to be standard practice to detain unaccompanied girls with women and young children, while older unaccompanied boys are detained alongside adult men.

Children represent a small but particularly vulnerable part of the migrant population in Libya, in detention centers, and on the sea crossing. A UNICEF survey among children along the Mediterranean migration route through Libya found that 75 percent reported experiencing violence, harassment, or aggression by adults. Most reported verbal and emotional abuse; half reported physical abuse.[145]  Almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya in the first nine months of 2018 were children under the age of 18.[146]

Human Rights Watch saw many newborns and toddlers detained in grossly unsuitable conditions in Ain Zara, Tajoura and Misrata detention centers. They and their caretakers, including breast-feeding mothers, lack adequate nourishment. Healthcare for children, as for adults, is absent or severely insufficient. There are no regular, organized activities for children, play areas or any kind of schooling.

Exposure to the harsh conditions in detention, in addition to traumas experienced in their home countries and along the migration journey including abuses by smugglers and traffickers, can have a profound impact on children’s mental health.

Nyala, 17, an unaccompanied girl from Ethiopia, whom researchers met during a visit to the Zuwara center, said she was raped repeatedly in early 2018 while she was held in a hangar or “Makhzen” owned by a smuggler in Bani Walid, in the center of Libya. 

I believe I am about four months pregnant. I was raped two, three times while in the Makhzen. They [smugglers] put a gun to my head and called my parents. They [smugglers] held the phone to my ear and I had to tell my parents to pay for me. The first time they paid 4,000 [U.S.] dollars, and the second time they paid 5,500 dollars. Those who raped me were Libyans.[147]

None of the centers provide special food for infants. The director of Ain Zara told us, “The catering company doesn’t bring baby food, it’s not in the contract.”[148] In Zuwara, staff told us the same thing, adding, “We bring it to them when needed.”[149] Nzube, a 24-year-old Nigerian, held her three-month-old baby as we spoke in Ain Zara detention center. She said her biggest concern is lack of food for her baby. She can’t breastfeed, she said, because a mixture of fuel and water burned her breasts during her failed attempt to reach Europe in an overcrowded rubber boat in March 2018. When the boat capsized, over 36 people died before the Coast Guard arrived. At disembarkation, she and her husband were separated; she does not know where he was taken.[150] Amina, a Sudanese mother of four from Darfur, held with her family in Tajoura center, said that children had to eat the same food as adults and that authorities did not provide baby milk for her infant.[151]

In March 2018, the IOM tracked 29,370 unaccompanied children in Libya but said the real figure could be “much higher.”[152] We spoke with eight unaccompanied children aged between 8 and 17. One 16-year-old from Sierra Leone said guards at Tajoura center beat him and his cellmates just a few days before we spoke. None said they had been identified and registered by UN agencies as unaccompanied children.

UNICEF, IOM, and UNHCR established in 2018 a protocol for joint protection of unaccompanied children in Libya. The agencies set up a Best Interest Determination (BID) panel to address particularly complex cases of children outside detention. The first case addressed by the panel, in March 2018, concerned a seven-year-old girl from Ivory Coast whose mother died at sea and who was subsequently placed in DCIM detention. She was reunited with her father in Abidjan.[153] As of  late November, the BID panel had not resolved two additional cases and was evaluating solutions for six more children.[154] IOM told Human Rights Watch it cannot conduct full best interest determination in detention because “conditions…do not allow for a private space and enough time to allow for in-depth interviews needed for the BID report.” The agency does, however, carry out “best interest assessments” when it identifies unaccompanied children in detention to understand their needs and “ensure that the return (if wished) is in their best interest.”[155]

IV. EU and Italy Knowledge of Abuses

Officials in European Union institutions and Italian state authorities know about widespread abuses against migrants and asylum seekers in Libya generally, and in official DCIM detention centers specifically.

EU officials and institutions openly acknowledge abuses in detention centers. In September 2017, a spokesperson for the EU External Action Service said, “We are completely aware of the unacceptable, often scandalous, even inhumane conditions in which migrants are treated in reception camps in Libya.”[156] EU migration commissioner Dimitri Avramopoulos said in November 2017, “We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya.”[157] Avramopoulos and other senior EU officials have repeatedly asserted that a central plank in their approach to Libya is to support efforts to improve conditions in detention, as well as evacuations and repatriations, in recognition of grave and widespread abuses.[158] In July 2018, a European Commission spokesperson reiterated that Libya does not meet basic conditions to allow disembarkation of rescued persons from European vessels.[159]

Officials in the EU and the current governments of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the previous government of Italy, have told Human Rights Watch they are aware of abuses against migrants and asylum seekers in Libyan detention centers.[160] The current Italian government has taken a different position. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini advocates declaring Libya a safe place for disembarkation and visited in June 2018 the then not yet operational UNHCR facility in Tripoli to “counter all of the lies and rhetoric about torture and rights violations in Libya.”[161] He did not visit any DCIM detention centers.

International rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, humanitarian organizations, and UN agencies including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), and UNHCR have documented abuses in detention centers.[162] In November 2017, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called the suffering of migrants in detention in Libya “an outrage to the conscience of humanity” and a situation that cannot be remedied only by efforts to improve conditions in detention.[163]


V. Legal Framework

The treatment in Libyan detention centers described in this report amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Libyan authorities are accountable for these abuses and the lack of accountability for perpetrators. Where the EU, Italy, and other governments have knowingly contributed significantly to the abuses of migrants in Libya, they have been complicit in those abuses.

State Complicity in Human Rights Violations Under International Law

Article 16 of the International Law Commission’s Articles of Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts provides that a state is accountable for human rights violations if it knowingly aids or assists another state to commit abuses.[164] Explanatory notes clarify that assistance can trigger state responsibility if it contributes “significantly” to the commission of a wrongful act, and when a state provides material aid subsequently used to commit human rights violations.[165] Providing substantial assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard units to intercept people in international waters, when it is known that they will return those people to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in arbitrary detention in Libya or, for children, where there are substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk of irreparable harm, can constitute aiding or assisting in the commission of serious human rights violations.[166]

Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur on torture, has noted that “any participation, encouragement, or assistance provided” for pullback operations leading to exposure to the real risk of torture and ill-treatment “would be irreconcilable with a good faith interpretation and performance of the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, including the principle of non-refoulement.”[167] Melzer has also said that “If European countries are paying Libya to deliberately prevent migrants from reaching the safety of European jurisdiction, we’re talking about complicity in crimes against humanity because these people are knowingly being sent back to camps governed by rape, torture and murder.”[168]

The EU and some of its member states, in particularly Italy, are providing substantial support to Libyan authorities to enable them to intercept migrants seeking to leave Libya by sea. The support is given with the purpose of enhancing the capacity of Libyan authorities to intercept such migrants.  The support comes in the form of equipment, funding, training, surveillance, intelligence and coordination assistance. The EU and states including Italy know that migrants intercepted by Libyan authorities who are returned to detention in Libya are arbitrarily held in inhumane conditions, at risk of further prohibited abuses. Indeed, they acknowledge this in providing funds to ameliorate conditions in detention, but such funds have had minimal impact on the situation.

Facilitating the interception and forced return to Libya of migrants seeking protection breaches international refugee law because Libya is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have a refugee law or procedure. This means that returned migrants have no effective access to a remedy for their protection needs.

Seventeen people intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in a November 2017 incident in which an estimated 20 people died have filed a complaint against Italy before the European Court of Human Rights. The case alleges that Italy exercised effective control over the Libyan Coast Guard and is therefore responsible for the rights violations resulting from the interception, both at sea and on land upon return to Libya.[169]

Detention of Migrants

UNHCR Detention Guidelines, which draw on international law, say government authorities should detain adult asylum seekers only “as a last resort” as a strictly necessary and proportionate measure to achieve a legitimate legal purpose based on an individual assessment.[170] Legitimate justifications for detention should be clearly defined in law, and conform to reasons clearly recognized in international law, such as concerns about danger to the public, a likelihood of absconding, or an inability to confirm an individual’s identity. Victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence should, as a general rule, not be detained.[171]

Stricter standards apply for children, including a prohibition on the detention children for migration-related reasons. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has reaffirmed time and again that children should not be detained on the basis of their or their parents’ migration status.[172] The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and 11 UN human rights experts echoed this view in 2018.[173]

Family detention and the detention of unaccompanied children is inconsistent with international standards, particularly the fundamental principle that “best interests of the child” should govern the state’s actions toward children.[174] The Committee on Migrant Workers and the Committee on the Rights of the Child have concluded that “the need to keep the family together is not a valid reason to justify the deprivation of liberty of a child” and instead, “family immigration detention should be prohibited by law and its abolishment ensured in policy and practice.”[175] Moreover, deprivation of liberty has a negative effect on children’s capacity to realize other fundamental rights, including the rights to education, health, and family unity.[176]

The Prohibition on Torture and Ill-treatment of Detainees

The absolute prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in international law is articulated in multiple treaties by which Libya is bound in particular the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The Nelson Mandela Rules, the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, call for, among other things, a limit to the number of people held in a room, depending on its size, appropriate sleeping arrangements, adequate facilities for personal hygiene, clothing and bedding, adequate food, and access to medical services. Women should be held in premises entirely separate from men and guarded by female staff. [177]  UN rules specifically for children in deprived of their liberty stipulate that children should never be detained with adults.[178]

The UNHCR guidelines, in conjunction with the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders, stipulate that facilities should accommodate women’s specific hygiene needs, including the provision of sanitary pads, and ensure safeguards against sexual and gender-based violence. The use of female guards should be promoted, and there should clear remedies and protection measures for women in detention who report abuse. As a general rule, pregnant women and nursing mothers should not be detained. Survivors of sexual violence should have access to appropriate medical and psychological care, including pregnancy tests.[179]



To Libyan Authorities

  • Until such time as the legal framework is amended, immediately suspend automatic immigration detention and ensure that it is used only as a last resort and for the shortest time necessary;
  • Ensure all detainees are swiftly brought before a judge to rule on the legality and necessity of detention and address any complaints about treatment in detention. Comply with any orders for release of detainees;
  • Institute alternatives to detention, including the establishment of centers where asylum seekers can enjoy freedom of movement allowing them to leave the center during the day;
  • Ensure that immigration detention facilities properly distinguish children from adults, and that they apply international standards that clearly define anyone who is under 18 years of age as a minor;
  • Immediately end the detention of children and accompanying adults for immigration control purposes;
  • Alleviate overcrowding by releasing detainees and ensuring more balanced distribution of those not released among centers according to international guidelines;
  • Improve conditions in all migration-related detention facilities; provide adequate food, water sanitation, and health care, including specialized food and care for children;
  • Ensure adequate budgeting for detention-related needs and activities including for food, maintenance, healthcare and non-food items;
  • Create institutional mechanisms for accountability for abuse by guards in detention facilities, including disciplinary measures, immediate removal of staff in case of proven, serious wrongdoing, and, where appropriate, prosecution for wrongdoing;
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and set up the national preventative mechanism under that treaty to ensure independent inspection of all places of detention;
  • Ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and enact an asylum law that establishes a fair and lawful asylum procedure in conformity with international standards and obligations, in particular, with the inclusion in national law of an absolute prohibition on refoulement; until such time as the legal framework for asylum is established, and as a temporary measure, suspend any punitive measures including automatic detention and fines for irregular entry or exit of asylum seekers to or from Libya;
  • Formally recognize UNHCR and support its efforts to provide international protection for all refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern on Libyan territory, without restriction based on nationality. In particular, grant UNHCR full and unfettered access to all places where non-nationals are detained in Libya;
  • Adopt clear and consistent standard operating procedures for the coordination of rescue operations by commercial, nongovernmental, and any other vessels in Libyan territorial waters; or, within what Libya considers its search and rescue area in international waters, allow swift response to boats in distress by European and other vessels.

To European Union Institutions and Member States

  • Openly acknowledge that the current form of provision of funding and support to Libya has failed to significantly improve protection and assistance to migrants and refugees stranded in the country, and commit to urgently review the modalities of all EU funding and other support to Libya aimed at increasing that country’s effectiveness at intercepting asylum seekers and migrants before they take to the sea or before they reach international waters;
  • Adopt clear, time-bound benchmarks for improvements in Libyan search-and-rescue capacity as well as treatment and conditions in detention centers in Libya;
  • Ensure that EUNAVFOR MED intensifies its monitoring of Libyan Coast Guard operations, including by Coast Guard units not trained by the EU, and regularly makes its key findings public; and ensure an independent and transparent assessment of the impact of EU migration-related funding to Libya;
  • Publicly stress the readiness of European institutions and member states to cease to fund or provide other support if the Libyan authorities fail to meet the benchmarks;
  • Redirect support into multilateral efforts, especially through UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations, to ensure that fundamental human rights standards relating to the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Libya are observed;
  • Categorically reject any forcible returns to Libya, including of people rescued or intercepted at sea, and reiterate the EU’s respect for the non-refoulement principle. No part of Libya should be designated as safe for the purposes of return, until such time as the security and human rights situation has improved sufficiently to allow for a safe and dignified return;
  • Increase significantly resettlement of asylum seekers out of Libya, including directly to EU countries, based on reasonable and generous criteria, to ensure also that the evacuation program to Niger and elsewhere continues apace, with proportionate and swift subsequent resettlement;
  • Ensure a transparent, public auditing of IOM’s voluntary humanitarian program to ensure that people in need of protection as potential asylum seekers are not pressured into returning to their home countries;
  • Press Libyan authorities to reform the immigration detention regime to prevent arbitrary, indefinite detention and establish accountability for abuse in detention centers;
  • Support vigorously the adoption of a Memorandum of Understanding between Libyan authorities and the UNHCR to ensure the refugee agency has the mandate to register and provide protection to all persons meeting the 1951 Refugee Convention definition, without nationality limits or other unreasonable criteria with no basis in international law;
  • Ensure adequate search-and-rescue capacity by European vessels, including nongovernmental rescue organizations, until Libyan authorities end arbitrary detention, demonstrate sustained and significant improvements in conditions and treatment in detention centers, and have sufficient autonomous capacity to fulfil their search and rescue responsibilities;
  • Adopt an arrangement for disembarkation across EU countries which guarantees against automatic detention and ensures swift relocation of rescued persons to other EU countries for legal processing;
  • Urge Italy and Malta, the closest safe ports to the critical search-and-rescue area, to allow prompt disembarkation;
  • Consider disembarkation agreements with non-EU countries only if certain key conditions are met. These include, at a minimum, procedural guarantees against arbitrary detention and refoulement, access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure, and fair deportation procedures for those with no valid claim to remain.

To the Government of Italy

  • Cease funding or providing other bilateral support to Libya aimed at increasing that country’s effectiveness at intercepting asylum seekers and migrants before they take to the sea or before they reach Italian waters, at least until the Libyan authorities end the practice of arbitrary detention and demonstrate sustained and significant improvements in conditions and treatment in detention centers. Redirect such support into multilateral efforts, especially through UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations, to ensure that fundamental human rights standards relating to the treatment of such persons in Libya are observed;
  • Ensure the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center retains coordination of rescue operations in international waters off the Libyan coast, including, where appropriate, in collaboration with the Libyan Coast Guard, to ensure swift response to boats in distress by European and other vessels and disembarkation in a safe place outside Libya;
  • Ensure that persons rescued by nongovernmental groups, commercial vessels, and military ships are allowed to disembark within a reasonable amount of time in Italy or another safe place outside Libya;
  • Refrain from instructing any ship to hand rescued persons over to Libyan authorities, whether at sea or in Libyan territory;
  • Work with EU institutions and other member states to reach a dependable agreement for relocation to other EU countries of rescued persons disembarked in Italy.

To the International Maritime Organization

  • Commit to reviewing the decision to acknowledge Libya’s search-and-rescue region in light of clear evidence that Libya is not a safe place to disembark rescued or intercepted persons and in light of the evident lack of capacity of the Coast Guard under the Government of National Accord to perform rescue responsibilities in the vast SAR region it claims;
  • Communicate clearly to Libyan authorities their responsibility to coordinate effectively with all vessels at sea for timely, safe rescue operations, including by nongovernmental organizations and merchant vessels, and to coordinate with other competent SAR authorities for disembarkation outside of Libya;
  • Adopt a resolution declaring that Libya is not a safe place for disembarkation given the evidence of abuse against persons rescued or intercepted at sea and returned to indefinite, abusive detention.

To the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

  • Ensure effective coordination with the IOM to guarantee proper identification of persons who may be in need of protection;
  • Press international donors for more financial support to expand the UNHCR’s capacity, including personnel, commensurate with the needs in Libya;
  • Continue to press Libyan authorities, with international support, for a Memorandum of Understanding allowing it to implement its full mandate on behalf of persons in need of international protection;
  • Express concern over EU capacity-building programs for the Libyan Coast Guard given that everyone intercepted or rescued by these forces is placed in automatic, arbitrary and abusive detention.

To the International Organization for Migration

  • Ensure effective coordination with UNHCR to guarantee proper identification of persons who may be in need of protection;
  • Support an independent, transparent study of the voluntary humanitarian return program in Libya, with a view to assessing safeguards against returns of individuals with protection needs as well as successful reintegration in countries of origin of individuals repatriated from Libya. 



This report was researched and written by Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director, and Hanan Salah, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher. H. G. assisted the researchers. It was reviewed by Benjamin Ward, deputy director in the Europe and Central Asia division; Eric Goldstein, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division; Hillary Margolis, researcher in the Women’s Rights Division; and Mike Bochenek, senior counsel in the Children’s Rights Division. Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor, and Tom Porteous, deputy Program director, provided legal and programmatic reviews. Production assistance was provided by Elida Vikic, associate in the Europe and Central Asia Division, and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch would like to acknowledge that the Interior Ministry of the Government of National Accord granted access to detention centers, and would like to thank the Foreign Ministry for facilitating visas.

Human Rights Watch would like to thank the migrants and asylum seekers in detention in Libya who spoke with us.



[1] See Human Rights Watch, Stemming the Flow: Libya’s Abuse of Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees, September 2006,; Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers, September 2009,

[2] United Nations Secretary-General, Report to the Security Council, August 31, 2018, U.N. Doc. S/2018/807, (accessed September 5, 2018), p. 9.

[4] Eunavfor Med Operation Sophia Six Monthly Report. Reporting period 1 January 2016-31 October 2016, (accessed October 26, 2018), p. 7

[5] “Libya: No Free Elections in Current Climate,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 21, 2018,

[6] International Organization for Migration, Libya’s Migrant Report, Round 21, July-August 20118, IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, August 2018,

[7] Mark Micallef and Tuesday Reitano, “The anti-human smuggling business and Libya’s political end game,” Institute for Security Studies, December 2017, (accessed September 3, 2018).

[8] “Libya: Civilians Killed in Tripoli Clashes,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 1, 2018,

[9] “Evacuation of refugees and migrants out of Libya is urgently needed,” MSF news release, September 7, 2018, (accessed September 13, 2018).

[10] See for example Stemming the Flow (2006), Pushed Back, Pushed Around (2009), EU/NATO: Europe’s Plan Endangers Foreigners in Libya (2016), Saving Lives at Sea (2017).

[11] Human Rights Watch interview with Kameela, Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018.

[12] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, UN, (accessed October 19, 2018); United States Department of State 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, Libya chapter, (accessed October 26, 2018).

[13] United Nations, “Interim Report of the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011) Concerning Libya.” On file with Human Rights Watch.

[14] Reuters, “Human smugglers in Libya have links to security forces: U.N. report,” February 8, 2018, (accessed September 14, 2018).

[15] UN News, “As Security Council imposes sanctions on six human traffickers in Libya, UN chief calls for more accountability,” June 8, 2018, (accessed September 14, 2018).

[16] UNHCR, Position on Returns to Libya (Update II), September 2018, (accessed September 7, 2018).

[17] Law No. 19 (2010) on Combating Irregular Migration, Article 6, and Law No. 6 (1987) on Regulating Entry, Residence and Exit of Foreign Nationals to/from Libya, and amended by Law No. 2 (2004)

[18]Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Noureddine el-Qritli, director, Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview  with Brigadier General Mohamed Bishr, DCIM head, Tripoli, July 12, 2018; AFP, Number of migrants detained in Libya down sharply: government, April 16, 2018, (accessed September 13, 2018).

[20] Karen McVeigh, Libya migrant centres near breaking point after spike in arrivals, The Guardian, July 18, 2018, (accessed September 13, 2018).

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with Suleyman, Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[22] MSF, “Libya: The Arbitrary and Inhumane Detention of Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers,” December 2017, p. 9. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[23] UNHCR Flash Update – Libya – 17-24 August 2018, (accessed September 7, 2018). The nine nationalities UNHCR can register are: Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia (only members of the Oromo ethnic group), Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, and Palestine.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with Issouf, aboard the NGO rescue ship MV Aquarius, October 13, 2017.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with Ousmane, aboard the NGO rescue ship MV Aquarius, October 12, 2017.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with Musa, Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with Suleyman, Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018. Brigade 201 is an armed group based in southern parts of Tripoli, led by forces from Misrata.

[28] MSF, “Libya: The Arbitrary and Inhumane Detention of Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers,” December 2017, p. 31. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with 16-year-old boy, aboard the NGO rescue ship MV Aquarius, October 12, 2017.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[31] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ahmed, October 29, 2018.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR, Tripoli, July 9, 2018; UNHCR, Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders January-August 2018, September 2018, (accessed September 7, 2018).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Tweet by Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy for the situation in the Central  Mediterranean, November 2, 2018,; “First group of refugees evacuated from new departure facility in Libya, UNHCR news release, December 6, 2018, (accessed December 17, 2018).

[35] EU Council Conclusions, June 28, 2018, (accessed November 19, 2018).

[36] Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, articles 4, 18, and 19,; Directive 2013/32/EU of the European Parliament and the European Council of 26 June 2013 on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection (recast),; European Court of Human Rights [Grand Chamber judgment], Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy, February 23, 2012, file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/001-109231.pdf; see also European Court of Human Rights, Factsheet—Collective expulsion of aliens, September 2018,

[37] Huffington Post, “Non basta denunciare, il nostro assillo è agire.” Marco Minniti difende i progressi della strategia sui migranti in Libia, November 15, 2017, (accessed November 19, 2018).

[38] “EU/Italy/Libya: Disputes Over Rescues Put Lives at Risk,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 25, 2018,

[39] European Union External Action Service (EEAS), Factsheet on the relations between Libya and the European Union, January 2018, (accessed September 13, 2018).

[40] Presentation at the SHADE MED conference, Rome, June 2018; EEAS, “EUBAM Libya Revised Mapping Report on Border Management, Law and Criminal Justice Systems in Libya,” EU restricted document, April 2018, p. 61. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[41] EEAS, “EUBAM Libya Revised Mapping Report on Border Management, Law and Criminal Justice Systems in Libya,” EU restricted document, April 2018, p. 61. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[42] Human Rights Watch, Stemming the Flow: Libya’s Abuse of Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees, September 2006,

[43] By mid-December 2018, for example, 23,055 people had reached Italy from Libya since the beginning of the year compared to 1,182 reaching Malta, according to UNHCR data. (accessed December 17, 2018).

[44] Italian Chamber of Deputies D.L. 84/2018: Conversione di unità navali alla Libia, August 6, 2018, (accessed October 29, 2018).

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Colonel Abu Ajeila Ammar, head of Libyan Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations, Tripoli, July 11, 2018.

[47] EUNAVFOR MED Op Sophia – Monitoring of Libyan Coast Guard and Navy Report October 2017-January 2018, EEAS 6961/18, March 9, 2018. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Captain Ayman Al-Dabbashi, Commander Libyan Coast Guard in Sebratha, Sebratha, July 7, 2018; Human Rights Watch interview with Libyan Coast Guard officials, Tripoli, July 12, 2018.

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with senior IMO official, London, April 19, 2018.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Human Rights Watch, EU: Shifting Rescues to Libya Risks Lives, June 19, 2017,

[54] See Human Rights Watch, “Disputes Over Rescues Put Lives at Risk,” July 25, 2018,; Human Rights Watch, “Save The Aquarius, Save Lives,” October 3, 2018,

[55] The three organizations are Open Arms Proactiva, Sea-Watch, and Mediterranea Saving Lives.

[56] This occurred in at least three instances which Human Rights Watch has documented: the Sedef in June 2018, the Vos Thalassa in July 2018, and the Nivin in November 2018. In the case of the Sedef and Vos Thalassa, Human Rights Watch spoke with company representatives. In the case of the Nivin, Human Rights Watch saw email communication between the IMRCC and the Nivin.

[57] See Human Rights Watch, EU/Italy/Libya: Disputes over Rescues Put Lives at Risk, July 25, 2018,

[58] See Human Rights Watch, Libya: Migrants Forced off Ship at Libya Port, November 21, 2018,

[59] “Mediterranean crossings deadlier than ever, new UNHCR report shows,” UNHCR news release, September 3, 2018, (accessed September 19, 2018).

[60] IOM Missing Migrants Project, (accessed September 19, 2018).

[61] Matteo Villa, “Outsourcing Border Control: Recent Trends in Departures, Deaths and Search and Rescue Activities in the Mediterranean,” September 11, 2018, (accessed September 14, 2018).

[62] Ibid.

[63] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexandra, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview with Joanna, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmed, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview with Giuseppe Perrone, then Italian ambassador to Libya, Tripoli, July 11, 2018.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview with  Bettina Muscheidt, former Head of Delegation European Union to Libya, Tunis, July 11, 2018; EU Libya Factsheet, “EU-Libya Relations,” Updated January 22, 2018,, p. 2; European Parliament, “Answer to  Written Question: Answer Given by Mr. Hahn on Behalf of the Commission,” October 5, 2017, (accessed October 29, 2018). International humanitarian organizations operating in Libya include Médécins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), International Rescue Committee, the International Medical Corps (IMC), and the Danish Refugee Council. IMC partners with UNHCR. In 2016, MSF decided to renounce all EU funding in disagreement with EU migration policies. Patrick Kingsley, “MSF rejects EU funding in protest at refugee deal,” The Guardian, June 17, 2016, (accessed September 15, 2018).

[69] Daniella Biella, “Libia, ecco le sette ong italiane pronte a entrare in azione,” Vita, December 7, 2017, (accessed September 15, 2018); Daniella Biella, “ONG in Libia, nuovo bando per intervenire in 5 centri di detenzione,” Vita, March 18, 2018, (accessed September 15, 2018). The deadline for submitting bids for the second tranche of funding was October 1, 2018. At the time of writing, no announcement had been made. 

[70] Human Rights Watch interviews with staff of humanitarian organizations, Tunis and Tripoli.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with Mulugeta, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview with Solomon, Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[73] Human Rights Watch interviews with two humanitarian organizations operating in Libya who wish to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing their access; Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR official; “Stop arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants disembarked in Libya,” MSF news release,

[74] “UNHCR dismayed as smugglers, traffickers impersonate staff amid clashes in Tripoli,” UNHCR news release, September 9, 2018, (accessed September 13, 2018).

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with Kemi, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[76] “UNHCR appeals for more resettlement, end to detention as Libya evacuations near 2,500,” UNHCR news release, November 23, 2018,

[77] “UNHCR evacuates vulnerable refugees out of Libya as fighting resumes,” UNHCR news release, October 18, 2018, (accessed October 19, 2018)

[78] UNHCR Resettlement update #6, Libya-Niger situation, November 19, 2018, (accessed November 30, 2018).

[79] Desperate journeys, p. 17.

[80] Email communication to Human Rights Watch from UNHCR Libya, November 26, 2018.

[81] IOM, “UN Migration Agency Helps More Than 30,000 Migrants Return Safely to Over 30 Countries,” August 14, 2018, (accessed September 16, 2018). EU member states, including Italy, Germany, Finland, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, as well as non-EU countries Norway and Switzerland, contribute funds to IOM’s program in Libya.

[82] Email communication to Human Rights Watch from IOM Libya, November 30, 2018.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Isaac, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with Hamza, Zuwara detention center, July 9, 2018.

[85] Human Rights Watch interview with anonymous humanitarian actor, Tunis, Tunisia, July 3, 2018.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Isaac, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[89] Email communication to Human Rights Watch from IOM Libya, November 30, 2018.

[90] Group Human Rights Watch interview with Ain Zara center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018.

[91] Email communication to Human Rights Watch from IOM Libya, November 30, 2018.

[92] Email communication to Human Rights Watch from UNHCR Libya, November 26, 2018.

[93] Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Whipped, Beaten, and Hung from Trees,” June 22, 2014,

[94] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Support Mission in Libya, “Detained and Dehumanised: Report on Human Rights Abuses against Migrants in Libya,” December 2016, (accessed June 10, 2017); Refugees International, “Hell on Earth: Abuses against Refugees and Migrants Trying to Reach Europe from Libya, May 2017,; Patrick Wintour, “German report details Libya abuses amid pressure to end migrant flows,” The Guardian, January 30, 2017, (accessed November 30, 2018).

[95] Human Rights Watch interview with Ismail Shanab, director, al-Karareem center, Misrata, July 10, 2018. We have used the official exchange rate; according to the actual exchange rate on the black market as per mid-January 2019, the cost was US$0,3.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Bishr, head of DCIM, Tripoli, July 12, 2018.

[97] Letter on file with Human Rights Watch.

[98] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Bishr, Head of DCIM, Tripoli, July 12, 2018.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview with Ismail Shanab, director, al-Karareem center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Marie-Claire, al-Karareem center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with Oputa, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[103] Human Rights Watch interview with Kemi, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[104] Human Rights Watch interview with Hawa, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[105] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexandra, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018

[106] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[107] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmed, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[108] In a follow-up call with Ahmed on October 29, 2018 he said that a Palestinian Embassy representative came to Trig el-Sikka detention center at the onset of the Tripoli clashes, and signed for him to be released despite his objections. He had asked to remain at the detention facility despite the bad conditions in order to expedite his registration with UNHCR. He said that while at Trig el-Sikka, he had been beaten by the guards with a wooden stick on his hand merely for trying to speak with a representative of UNHCR, who according to Ahmed, did not react to the incident. He also said that anyone who tried to escape would be beaten and that guards would not distinguish between detainees and beat everyone who’s in their way. He said he was beaten with a Tubu [plastic hose] after someone tried to escape. He also said that guards sometimes would enter cells at night when they were drunk and beat people randomly. He said that despite the daily visits by IOM and UNHCR to the prison except for Fridays and Saturdays, detainees still only got one meager meal a day, and that the place was filthy. Ahmed said he is currently staying with acquaintances in Tripoli and struggling to treat a liver condition he says he contracted while in al-Karareem.

[109] Human Rights Watch interview with Naser, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmed, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Anwar Abu Theib, director, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[112] Ibid.

[113] MSF, “Time running out for 800 migrants and refugees in Zuwara centre,” May 4, 2018, (accessed September 14,2018). 

[114] Human Rights Watch interview with Aman, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018. Every Eritrean is obligated to serve an indeterminate period of “national service,” mostly in military units.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Isaac, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with Idriss, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview with Hamza, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018

[118] Human Rights Watch interview with Magdi, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Noureddine el-Qritli, director, and Mahmoud Ali Al-Taweer, head of administration and media, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[121] Human Rights Watch interview with Raheem, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[122] Ahmed Elumami and Aidan Lewis, “Armed force claims victor in Libyan migrant smuggling hub,” Reuters, October 6, 2017,; UNHCR Flash Update Libya (9-18 October 2017), (accessed September 19, 2018).

[123] Hand-written letter on file at Human Rights Watch.

[124] Email communication from UNHCR Libya, November 26, 2018.

[125] Human Rights Watch interview with Edward, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[126] Human Rights Watch interview with Kwame, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview with Muneeb, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[128] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahmoud Ali Al-Taweer, head of Administration and Media, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[129] Human Rights Watch phone interview with humanitarian organization, November 26, 2018.

[130] Human Rights Watch interview with Amina, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018

[131] Human Rights Watch interview with Wilfried, aboard the NGO rescue ship MV Aquarius, October 12, 2017.

[132] Human Rights Watch interview with Nourah, Sicily, Italy, June 2016,

[133] Human Rights Watch interview with Tarek Bahij Moussa, director, Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018.

[134] At the time of the visit, the center held 184 men, 46 women and 5 children from Eritrea. None of the Eritreans had been registered by UNHCR as asylum-seekers, according to a group of Eritreans who spoke with Human Rights Watch. There were also 150 men, 120 women and 25 children from Somalia, of whom only some had been registered. From Ethiopia, there were 52 men, 30 women and 8-10 children, only some of whom had been registered. From Darfur there were 47 men, 7 women and 15 children, who had not been registered. The UN had only registered their names at disembarkation.

[135] Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean man, Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018.

[136] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Sally Hayden, August 29, 2018; @sallyhayd Twitter feed.

[137] Ibid.

[138] Ibid.; Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Sally Hayden, August 30, 2018; WhatsApp message from Sally Hayden, forwarding replies from a migrant detained in Abu Salim, September 13, 2018.

[139] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with UNHCR Libya, August 30, 2018; See also UNHCR, “UNHCR moves detained refugees out of harm’s way in Libya’s volatile capital,” August 30, 2018, (accessed September 19, 2018).

[140] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with IOM Libya, August 31, 2018.

[141] UNICEF, A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migration Route, February 2017, (accessed April 5, 2017).

[142] Desperate Journeys, p. 25.

[143] Human Rights Watch interview with Tarek Bahij Moussa, director, Ain Zara center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018; Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Noureddine el-Qritli, director, Tajoura center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018.

[144] Human Rights Watch interview with Ismail Shanab, director, al-Karareem detention center, Misrata, July 10, 2018.

[145] UNICEF, A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migration Route, February 2017, (accessed April 5, 2017), p.4.

[146] UNHCR, Operation Portal: Refugee Situations, Mediterranean Situation: Italy, (accessed October 26, 2018).

[147] Human Rights Watch interview with Nyala, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 10, 2018.

[148] Human Rights Watch interview with Tarek Bahij Moussa, director, Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018.

[149] Human Rights Watch interview with Anwar Abu Theib, director, Zuwara detention center, Zuwara, July 9, 2018.

[150] Human Rights Watch interview with Nzube, Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018.

[151] Human Rights Watch interview with Amina, Tajoura center, Tajoura, July 8, 2018

[152] “IOM, UNICEF, UNHCR Step Up Protection for Children on the Move in Libya,” IOM news release, April 27, 2018, (accessed September 16, 2018).

[153] Ibid.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview with IOM staff, Tripoli, July 11, 2018; Emails to Human Rights Watch from IOM Libya child protection officer, November 13 and November 26, 2018.

[155] Ibid.

[156] “MSF accuses EU of fuelling migrant abuses in Libya,” Euractiv, September 8, 2017, (accessed December 17, 2018).

[157] “EU working without ‘letup’ to help migrants in Libya,” Euractiv, November 24, 2017, (accessed December 17, 2018).

[158] Ibid.; “EU sticks to Libya strategy on migrants, despite human rights concerns,” Reuters, September 14, 2017, (accessed December 17, 2018); Speech by Federica Mogherini at the European Parliament plenary session on the situation of migrants in Libya, December 13, 2017, (accessed December 17, 2018);

[159] “EU Commission: Libya unfit for migrant disembarkation, » EU Observer, August 1, 2018, (accessed December 17, 2018).

[160] Human Rights Watch meeting with officials of the German Foreign Office and officials of the Chancellery, Berlin, November 27, 2018;Human Rights Watch meeting with officials of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris, November 13, 2018;Human Rights Watch meeting with United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, November 5, 2018; Human Rights Watch meeting with the then EU Ambassador to Libya, Tunis, July 11, 2018;

Human Rights Watch meeting with the Italian Foreign Ministry, Rome, November 28, 2017;

Human Rights Watch meeting with a senior advisor to then Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Rome, November 28, 2017.

[161] Interior Minister Matteo Salvini press conference, June 26, 2018, (accessed December 17, 2018).

[162] See for example: OHCHR and UNSMIL, “Detained and Dehumanised: Report on Human Rights Abuses against Migrants in Libya,” December 2016, (accessed June 10, 2017); OHCHR and UNSMIL, Desperate and Dangerous: Report on the human rights situation of migrants and refugees in Libya, December 2018, (accessed January 11, 2019); Refugees International, “Hell on Earth: Abuses against Refugees and Migrants Trying to Reach Europe from Libya, May 2017,; Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Whipped, Beaten, and Hung from Trees,” June 22, 2014,; Amnesty International, Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion, December 2017,; MSF, Open Letter, European governments are feeding the business of suffering, September 6, 2017,; MSF, Turning a blind eye: How Europe ignores the consequences of outsourced migration management, November 2015, Patrick Wintour, “German report details Libya abuses amid pressure to end migrant flows,” The Guardian, January 30, 2017, (accessed November 30, 2018).

[163] OHCHR news release, “UN human rights chief: Suffering of migrants in Libya outrage to conscience of humanity,” November 14, 2017, (accessed December 17, 2018).

[164] International Law Commission, Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, 2001, (accessed October 29, 2018), article 16.

[165] ILC, Draft Articles on State Responsibility for Internationally Wrongful Acts, with Commentaries, 2001, (accessed October 29, 2018), pp. 66-67.

[166] See Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 6: Treatment of Unaccompanied and Separated Children Outside Their Country of Origin, U.N. Doc. CRC/GC/2005/6 (September 1, 2005), para. 27. For example, prior to effecting returns, states should take into account “the particularly serious consequences for children of the insufficient provision of food or health services.” More generally, states should ensure that any decision to return a child includes “a robust individual assessment and determination of the best interests of the child”; “[c]onsiderations such as those relating to general migration control cannot override best-interests considerations.” Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and Committee on the Rights of the Child, Joint General Comment No. 3 (Committee on Migrant Workers) and No. 22 (Committee on the Rights of the Child) on the General Principles Regarding the Human Rights of Children in the Context of International Migration, U.N. Doc. CMW/C/GC3-CRC/C/GC/22 (November 16, 2017), para. 33.

[167] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, UN Doc A/HRC/37/50, February 2018, (accessed October 29, 2018), paragraphs 56-59. See also Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen and James C. Hathaway, “Non-Refoulement in a World of Cooperative Deterrence,” University of Michigan Law School, Scholarship Repository, (accessed October 29, 2018).

[168] “Humanity is on path to self-destruction, warns UN special rapporteur,” The Guardian, December 10, 2018, (accessed December 10, 2018).

[169] Charles Heller, Lorenzo  Pezzani, Itamar Mann, Violeta Moren0-Lax, and Eyal Weizman, “‘It’s An of Murder:’ How Europe Outsources Suffering as Migrants Drown,” (accessed January 11, 2019).

[170] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Detention Guidelines: Guidelines on the Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers and Alternatives to Detention (2012) [UNHCR Detention Guidelines], para. 2. More generally, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has argued that “immigration detention should gradually be abolished…If there has to be administrative detention, the principle of proportionality requires it to be a last resort. UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/13/30 (January 18, 2010), para. 59

[171] UNHCR Detention Guidelines, Guideline 9.1.

[172] See Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 6, para. 61; Committee on the Rights of the Child, Report of the 2012 Day of General Discussion: The Rights of All Children in the Context of International Migration (2012), para. 78; Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on Migrant Workers, Joint General Comment No. 4/23, para. 5.

[173] Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Revised Deliberation No. 5, February 2018,, para. 11; “UN experts to US: ‘Release migrant children from detention and stop using them to deter irregular migration,’” 22 June 2018, (accessed 12 September 2018).

[174] The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that children have the right to have their best interests assessed and taken into account as a primary consideration in all actions or decisions that concern them, both in the public and private sphere. Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 3(1). The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors adherence to the convention, has identified the best interests principle as one of four general principles for interpreting and implementing all rights of the child, and applies it as a dynamic concept that requires an assessment appropriate to the specific context. Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 14 (2013) on the Right of the Child to Have His or Her Best Interests Taken as a Primary Consideration, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/GC/14 (May 29, 2014), para. 1.

[175] Joint General Comment No. 4/23, paras. 11-12.

[176]  See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “Australia: Appalling Abuse, Neglect of Refugees on Nauru,” August 2, 2016,; Human Rights Watch, Closed Doors: Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children , pp. 93-94, 106, 123-26.

[177] See UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), U.N. Doc. A/RES/70/175 (January 8, 2016).

[178] Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 37(c); UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty, G.A. Res. 45/113 (December 14, 1990), para 29 (“In all detention facilities juveniles should be separated from adults, unless they are members of the same family.”). See also ICCPR, art. 10(2)(b) (requiring separation of “accused juvenile persons” from adults when deprived of liberty).

[179] UNHCR Detention Guidelines, Guideline 9.3; UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisons and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders, A/C.3/65/L.5, October 5, 2010, (accessed November 30, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

We, the undersigned refugee and human rights organizations in Thailand, welcome today’s commitment by the Government of Thailand to stop detaining migrant and refugee children. This commendable step brings Thailand closer to international standards for the treatment of refugee and migrant children and recognizes their fundamental rights under international law.

We urge the authorities to immediately release all refugees arbitrarily detained in Thailand and fully protect the rights of refugees and children, including by reuniting separated families and prioritizing the best interests of the child.

Today, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, representatives of the Royal Thai Police, the Ministries of Social Development and Human Security, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Health, Education, and Labour signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Determination of Measures and Approaches Alternative to Detention of Children in Immigration Detention Centers. The MoU acknowledges that children should only be detained as a measure of last resort and any detention period should be as brief as possible. The MoU prioritizes the best interests of the child, and affirms government responsibility to ensure children remain under their family’s care. Children should only be transferred into privately-run shelters or government custody as a measure of last resort. The government is in the process of adopting detailed procedures to implement these provisions. 

The MoU reflects a first step towards ending the immigration detention of children, but further efforts are necessary to protect the best interests of the child and to bring Thai policy and practice in line with basic international standards. The MoU fails to address family separation, and migrant mothers are only granted release from immigration detention following a cash bail payment of 50,000 Thai Baht (US$1,500) to reunite with children in holding shelters. The bail rate is exorbitant for most migrants and, particularly, refugees, who are prohibited from working in Thailand. Furthermore, the bail provision does not extend to fathers of migrant and refugee children, undermining the rights of a child to family life as enshrined in international law and best-interest practices. Bail is further restricted to mothers with children who are also in immigration custody.

Thai authorities continue to conduct immigration raids that result in the arrest and arbitrary detention of children and refugees. Since October 2018, immigration enforcement operations have continued to take place throughout Bangkok and other cities across Thailand. Thai authorities have arrested hundreds of refugees recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including children. These arrests violate international legal norms regarding the protection of refugees and undermine the government’s stated commitments to respect basic human rights.

We note with alarm that children remain detained at Bangkok’s Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center. Thailand is party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the arbitrary or unlawful detention of a child. The CRC allows for the separation of a child from his or her parents against their will solely in cases where “competent authorities subject to judicial review determine . . . that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” Article 22 of Thailand’s Child Protection Act of 2003 requires the best interest of the child to be given primary importance when considering the treatment of a child. The continued arrest and detention of refugees has not demonstrated adherence to Thailand’s commitments under international law.

Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the Thai government has repeatedly expressed a commitment to protect refugees in Thailand, including by adopting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and endorsing the  Global Compact on Refugees during the UN General Assembly in December 2018. The Thai government also affirmed a commitment to “humanitarianism and to take care of various groups of irregular migrants” during the UN Human Rights Committee review of Thailand’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in March 2017. On January 10, 2017, the government also adopted a cabinet resolution to develop a legal framework to identify and recognize refugees. However, at present, the Thai government has yet to enact legislative measures to advance this resolution.

Despite the commitments made by the government, Thai law still fails to recognize or provide protection for refugees, and all migrants found in Thailand without permission are subject to imprisonment and a fine in addition to deportation. In the case of refugees, this is in violation of non-penalization protections underscored in international law and basic protections underscored in multiple human rights covenants.

We urge the Thai government to:

  • End the detention of all refugees held solely on the basis of their immigration status.
  • Ensure that migrants are never arbitrarily detained, and migrants are only detained in exceptional circumstances following an individualized assessment and after the exhaustion of all alternatives to detention in line with international law.
  • Undertake meaningful, formal consultations with groups representing refugees, other civil society organizations, and refugees where possible to develop a legal framework to recognize and protect refugees in line with international standards and ensure the right to work so that they have a proper standard of living while awaiting resettlement or repatriation.
  • Withdraw the reservation to Article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which addresses the proper protection of refugee children.
  • Accede to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and the Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.


  1. Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)
  2. Asylum Access Thailand (AAT)
  3. Center for Asylum Protection, (CAP)
  4. Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons (CRSP)
  5. Fortify Rights
  6. Human Rights Watch
  7. Migrant Working Group (MWG)
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Mission Police Dept. officer (L), and a U.S. Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.

© 2018 John Moore/Getty Images

Trump administration officials were discussing deliberately targeting migrant families by late 2017, a draft policy document leaked to NBC News confirms. A government report also published this week found that thousands more children were forcibly separated from their parents, and beginning much earlier, than the administration had previously acknowledged.

The separations uncovered by the Office of Inspector General of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) date to summer 2017, well before the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy became public in April 2018 and images of children in cages hit the news in the following months.

A court case brought by the ACLU compelled the government to disclose how many children were separated from their parents under the “zero tolerance” policy. Authorities struggled to provide this information, eventually telling the court that 2,737 children had been forcibly separated from their parents.

But the court order only covered children who were in HHS custody on the date it was issued in June 2018. The count didn’t include many of the children split from their families in 2017 and early 2018, a number that the inspector general concluded was “unknown” but in the thousands. Because of inadequate recordkeeping, authorities also can’t say where all these children went and don’t know how many children have not yet been reunited with their parents.

Rather than reunification, the real priorities were deterrence and punishment of these families. Those priorities were obvious last summer, and they’re confirmed by the leaked policy memo.

The memo discussed targeting parents in migrant families for prosecution, with their children treated as unaccompanied and transferred to HHS custody. This approach “would have a substantial deterrent effect,” the document stated.

One official also suggested ways to deny separated children their right to seek asylum before an immigration judge, a process the official said “can be slow.”

The trauma of tearing families apart is never acknowledged in the memo. Nowhere do its drafters pause to consider how young some of the affected children would be – more than 100 were under age five, and some children were newborns.
These documents tell us the Trump administration wasn’t simply careless about the well-being of children in its care. Forcible family separation, piloted for months before it was rolled out across the border, was a deliberate strategy to inflict harm on children and their families to send the message that asylum seekers were unwelcome.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People are seen near a bus destroyed by an airstrike that killed dozens of children, in a photograph taken on August 12, 2018 in Saada, Yemen.

© 2018 Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

(Beirut) – The Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi armed group engaged in a conflict in Yemen which have turned the country's humanitarian crisis into a full-blown catastrophe, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

Since the armed conflict escalated in March 2015, the warring parties have committed numerous laws-of-war violations, worsened the country’s humanitarian situation, and failed to hold those responsible for war crimes to account. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and other weapons suppliers have risked complicity in abuses through arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other coalition governments. The United Nations has warned that without a dramatic change in the situation, nearly half of Yemen’s population will be at risk of starvation.

“The Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces have indiscriminately attacked, forcibly disappeared, and blocked food and medicine to Yemeni civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments around the globe can either do nothing while millions sink closer toward famine or use the leverage at their disposal to press the warring parties to end their abuses and impose sanctions on those obstructing aid.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Yemen’s armed conflict has taken a terrible toll on the population. Fighting has killed and wounded thousands of civilians. Millions suffer from shortages of food and medical care, yet the warring parties continue impeding aid. Across the country, civilians suffer from a lack of basic services, a spiraling economic crisis, and broken governance, health, education, and judicial systems.

The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes killing thousands of civilians and hitting critical infrastructure and other civilian structures in violation of the laws of war. Houthi forces have recruited children, used landmines and fired artillery and rockets indiscriminately into cities such as Taizz and Aden, and into Saudi Arabia. Houthi forces, government-affiliated forces, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and UAE-backed Yemeni forces have arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared scores of people. Houthi forces have held people as hostages. Yemeni officials in Aden have beaten, raped, and tortured detained migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa, including women and children.

The coalition has failed to conduct credible investigations into abuses, and coalition member countries have sought to avoid international legal liability by refusing to provide information on their forces’ role in unlawful attacks. The Houthi armed group also has not punished its commanders responsible for war crimes. Senior officials implicated in abuses remain in positions of authority across the country.

One cost of Yemen’s war has been the closing space for civil society groups. Warring parties have arrested, harassed, threatened, and forcibly disappeared Yemeni activists, journalists, lawyers, and rights defenders. Women activists, who have played a prominent role documenting abuses and advocating for their end, have been threatened, subjected to smear campaigns, beaten, and detained. Humanitarian aid workers have also been killed, wounded and detained.

“Rather than risk complicity in the next airstrike on a wedding or on a bus filled with children, the US, UK, and France should tell Saudi Arabia that weapons sales won’t continue until war crimes stop and those responsible are prosecuted,” Whitson said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Armed forces allied to internationally recognized government fight with armed group in Tripoli, Libya September 22, 2018. 

© 2018 Hani Amara/Reuters

(Geneva) – Unaccountable and violent armed groups maintain a stranglehold on Libya, while civilians pay the price in the divided country, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Libyan authorities should prioritize justice sector reform and establishing accountability, particularly for members of armed groups.

Seven years after the end of the 2011 revolution in Libya that ended the rule of the strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has two competing governments that have been unable to reconcile. They contest control over territory, institutions and resources, while armed groups linked with them unlawfully kill, forcibly disappear, torture, and arbitrarily detain people and have forcibly displaced thousands. Government-aligned forces and militias have kept thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers in detention centers where conditions are inhumane and physical abuse is routine.

“Militias have been terrorizing both Libyans and migrants while no authority dares stand up to them and hold them to account,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Until this changes, prospects remain dim for holding free and fair elections.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Protracted armed conflicts have hobbled key institutions in Libya, such as the judiciary, which functions only partially due to threats, harassment and attacks against judges, lawyers and prosecutors by militias. Where courts function, there are serious due process violations. In August, in one example, a Tripoli court sentenced in one mass trial 45 suspected former Gaddafi supporters to death and 54 others to five years in prison for the killing of protesters in 2011 despite allegations of serious due process violations.

Despite a mandate to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Libya since 2011, the International Criminal Court has only issued one arrest warrant since 2011, against a Benghazi-based commander affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, allied with one of the competing governments, who remains at large.

As a result of the conflicts, 200,000 people remain internally displaced. Thousands of families who fled clashes in Benghazi since 2014, and armed confrontations in Derna since May 2018 are unable to return to their homes or to reclaim their properties and livelihoods for fear of reprisals by LNA-linked groups who accuse them of supporting terrorism. Representatives from the cities of Misrata and Tawergha signed a peace accord in June that should have paved the way for the return of 48,000 people unlawfully displaced from Tawergha. But, only a few hundred have returned, due to the massive destruction and looting and ongoing security concerns and fear of reprisals.

Clashes between Tebu and Arab local militias in the south between February and June killed scores of civilians. In September, month-long clashes between rival militias in Tripoli left more than 100 people dead, including many civilians, according to the United Nations.

Although the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS) has controlled no territory in Libya since its ouster from Sirte in December 2016, it staged several deadly attacks that targeted civilians. In May, ISIS claimed an attack in Tripoli on the High National Elections Commission that resulted in the deaths of 12 people, some of them civilians.

Militias and government aligned armed groups harassed, detained, and attacked journalists and media professionals. Journalists reported that the Government of National Accord, the internationally recognized government, imposed restrictive measures against international journalists and TV networks, including by imposing government minders during visits to Libya and limiting access to officials and institutions, as well as migrant detention centers.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am