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The U.N. Says Europe’s Refugee Policies Just Led to the Deaths of 40 Migrants in Libya

Footage of the aftermath showed body parts and migrants’ belongings strewn among the rubble.

by Tim Hume
Jul 3 2019, 12:42pm

An airstrike on a Libyan detention center for migrants killed 40 people Wednesday, sparking U.N. calls for an immediate evacuation of refugees from the war-torn country.

The airstrike on the Tajoura detention center, on the outskirts of Tripoli, was the deadliest strike since April, when warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar launched a bloody assault to retake the Libyan capital. The U.N.’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, said the attack “clearly amounts to the level of a war crime.”

Footage of the aftermath showed body parts and migrants’ belongings strewn among the rubble.

Libya’s weak, U.N.-backed Government of National Accord has accused Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) of carrying out the airstrike and called on the U.N. to establish a fact-finding committee to investigate. The government’s interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, alleged to AP that foreign states aligned with Haftar were responsible, claiming they were angered by the LNA’s recent loss of a key town. Bashagha provided no evidence to support that allegation.

Since the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been split between warring factions and is the scene of a deepening humanitarian crisis. Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally who lived in exile in the U.S. until returning in 2011, controls much of the country’s east and south, and launched his assault on Tripoli in April. Since then, more than 700 people have been killed in the capital, according to the World Health Organization.

In the aftermath of the strike on Tajoura, the United Nations and aid groups fiercely condemned the European Union’s policy of working with Libyan militias to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Under the scheme, the EU funds and trains Libyan coast guards to apprehend migrants trying to cross to Europe. Migrants are then placed by the thousand in militia-run centers like Tajoura, where rights groups say they are subject to routine violence and exploitation, and risk being caught up in the ongoing violence.

Charlie Yaxley, the U.N. refugee agency’s spokesman for the region, said the bloodshed showed the need for urgent action to remove the migrants currently held in Libyan camps.

“This is the result humanitarian agencies have been fearing,” he said on Twitter. “This is why rescued refugees cannot be returned to Libya. No one should be returned to a detention center where they are trapped inside and at risk of death.”

"This is the result humanitarian agencies have been fearing. This is why rescued refugees cannot be returned to Libya."

The main arrival point for migrants departing from Libya is Italy, which has taken a hardline stance against migration, with Interior Minister Matteo Salvini insisting any migrants rescued on the Mediterranean should be returned to Libya rather than set foot in Europe. Migrant ships have refused to return them, saying to do so would be a breach of international laws declaring that migrants should be taken to a safe port.

Yaxley called for the immediate release of migrants held in detention centers, their evacuation from the war-ravaged country, and a guarantee that no migrants intercepted on the Mediterranean are returned to Libyan soil.

The Tajoura detention center was run by one of Libya’s warring militias and was situated next to a workshop containing weapons and vehicles, according to reports. Aid agencies say the workshop had been targeted in the past, leading to repeated warnings about the safety of the center.

Prince Alfani, Libya medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, said the camp suffered a near miss two months ago, when shrapnel tore through the roof and nearly hit a baby.

“Our teams visited the center earlier yesterday and saw 126 people in the cell that was hit,” he said, echoing the call for an immediate evacuation of migrants from Libya. “Those that survived are in absolute fear for their lives.”

Emad Badi, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the bloodshed at the camp should prompt Europe to change its policies.

“If there ever was a wake-up call for the EU to immediately cease all activities directly and indirectly sponsoring the return of migrants and their detention in Libya, this should be it,” he said.

Cover: Libyan Red Crescent workers recover migrants bodies after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli Wednesday, July 3, 2019. An airstrike hit the detention center for migrants early Wednesday in the Libyan capital. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed)