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The EU’s Shame Is Locked Away in Libya

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Zintan, LibyaThe smell of feces grew stronger as we walked toward the gate of the main building of the Dhar-el-Jebel detention complex, about 100 miles southwest of Tripoli in the Nefusa Mountains. A sewage problem, the director explained apologetically.

He unlocked the metal gate to the concrete warehouse, which housed about 500 detainees, nearly all from Eritrea. The asylum-seekers were lying on gray mattresses strewn across the floor. At the end of one mat-free alley, men lined up to urinate in one of 11 buckets.

No one in this room, a detainee told me on my first visit in May 2019, had seen sunlight since September 2018, when about 1,000 incarcerated migrants were moved here so they would be safe from fighting in Tripoli. Zintan, the nearest town, is away from the militia violence in Libya’s capital, but it’s also far from the eyes of international agencies. The migrants say they have been largely forgotten.

Across Libya, about 5,000 asylum-seekers are still being held indefinitely in some 10 main official detention centers, nominally run by the Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). In reality, since the fall of dictator Moammar El-Gadhafi in 2011, Libya has had no stable government, and the administration of these centers has fallen to various militias. Without a functioning government, migrants in Libya have routinely been kidnapped, forced into slave work, and tortured for ransom.

Since 2017, the European Union has been funding the Libyan Coast Guard to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, where many claim asylum. With EU equipment and training, Libyan security forces are capturing and locking up migrants in detention centers—some of which are in war zones and others in places where guards are known to sell migrants to traffickers.

Many of those fleeing oppressive regimes feel abandoned by the international agencies and have no money to bribe their way out. “Europe says they return us here for our safety,” said Gebray (a pseudonym, for his safety), an Eritrean detainee in Dhar-el-Jebel. “Why don’t they let us die in the sea, without pain? It’s better for us than to leave us here to die.”

Unlike other detention facilities I visited in Libya, the Dhar-el-Jebel center does not look like a prison. Before 2011, the series of large houses in the countryside was, according to official language, a training center for the “buds, cubs, and forearms of the Great Liberator”—the children who were taught Gadhafi’s Green Book, a short manual of the dictator’s mandatory teachings. When the Tripoli-based GNA was formed in 2016, the center came under the authority of the DCIM.

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