The United Nations has called for an investigation into the strike on Tajoura detention centre, which held some 600 people in a suburb of the Libyan capital Tripoli — part of a global chorus condemning the attack, which killed at least 44 people and injured 130 others.
But the strike followed repeated warnings about the vulnerability of migrants in guardhouses near Libya’s hotspots, and raises tough questions about whether it was necessary to lock them up in the first place.
“This is not the first time that migrants and refugees have been caught in the crossfire, with multiple airstrikes on or near detention centres across Tripoli since the conflict started in the city,” said Prince Alfani, a coordinator for the humanitarian medical group Médecins Sans Frontières.
“What is needed now is not empty condemnation but the urgent and immediate evacuation of all refugees and migrants held in detention centres out of Libya.”
By one estimate, some 3,800 migrants and refugees are held in government-run detention centres in Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya in what human rights groups and the U.N. say are often inhuman conditions.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for a war crimes probe into the strike, while condemning the “overcrowding” in Libya’s lockups for migrants and the rape and other violations that occur inside them.
“I also repeat my call for the release of detained migrants and refugees as a matter of urgency, and for their access to humanitarian protection, collective shelters or other safe places, well away from areas that are likely to be affected by the hostilities,” said Bachelet.
Libya is one of the main departure points for African migrants, fleeing poverty and war, trying to reach Italy by boat. But many are picked up and brought back by the Libyan coastguard, in a scheme backed by the European Union.
Two U.N. agencies — the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the U.N.’s Refugee Agency — said they had relocated 1,500 refugees from lockups in Libya’s hotspots to safer areas in recent months.
“Including those victims at Tajoura, some 3,300 migrants and refugees remain arbitrarily detained inside and around Tripoli,” the two agencies said in a statement. “Moreover, migrants and refugees face increasing risks as clashes intensify nearby. These centres must be closed.”
In May, UNHCR had already called for the Tajoura centre to be evacuated after a projectile landed some 100 metres away, injuring two migrants. Shrapnel from that blast tore through the lockup’s roof and almost hit a child.
This week’s strike was the highest publicly reported toll from an air strike or shelling since eastern forces under Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive three months ago to take Tripoli, the base of Libya’s internationally-recognised government.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to condemn the attack late Wednesday, Jul. 3, though it remained unclear whether it was the fault of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force, the U.N.-backed Tripoli-based government’s forces or another group.
Haftar’s LNA, allied to a parallel government based in eastern Libya, has seen its advance on Tripoli held up by robust defences on the outskirts of the capital, and said it would start heavy air strikes after “traditional means” of war had been exhausted.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was “outraged” by the “horrendous incident” and called for an “independent investigation” to prosecute those responsible for what many onlookers call a war crime, said his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
“This incident underscores the urgency to provide all refugees and migrants with safe shelter until their asylum claims can be processed or they can be safely repatriated,” Dujarric told reporters Wednesday.
Haftar’s bid to capture Tripoli has derailed U.N. efforts to broker an end to the mayhem that has ravaged the hydrocarbon-producing North African country since the brutal, NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.