Eritrean Refugees in Libya Facing Torture / Forcible Return to their Homeland

Eritrean Refugees in Libya Facing Torture / Forcible Return to their Homeland


The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) is deeply concerned about the plight of the many Eritrean refugees currently detained in Libya in a detention centre in Misratah. These detainees have never been charged or tried in court and are held, facing impending deportation to Eritrea where they may be subjected to ill-treatment and torture.


Many of the Eritrean detainees had fled their country to escape oppression in their homeland owing to the current political crisis there. Also, as documented by Amnesty International (AI), most of these detainees are conscripts who fled from Eritrea to escape military service which is obligatory upon all citizens aged 18 to 40 and lasts for an indefinite period. The maximum age for women has been ‘reportedly reduced to 27.’ Regarding the kind of treatment meted out by the Eritrean authorities to its inhabitants, the AI article further states that ‘There are no military courts and military offenders are arbitrarily punished with torture – being beaten and tied for hours or days in painful positions – and indefinite incommunicado detention in harsh conditions.’

The majority of Eritreans currently held in Misratah first fled to Sudan and sought refuge at a camp near the common border of both countries, known as Kilo Sitta Wa Eshrin (Kilo 26). The refugees were not safe there as Eritrean security officials would enter the camp at night and capture the people trying to escape. In addition, the refugees were not welcomed by the Sudanese security forces and were subjected to verbal and physical abuse from them. Hence they decided to travel further to Libya.

The refugees who managed to enter Libya were caught and detained by the Libyan authorities under varying circumstances. The majority of them were captured after being resident in Libya for some time. Some of them were arrested during raids at their homes, some while going to work and yet some others while going to the market to buy their daily needs. One refugee stated, “Some of us have being living in Libya for 2 to 3 years before we were picked up and arrested.”

About the Detainees

According to AI, by the beginning of February 2007, 430 Eritreans, including more than 50 women and children were detained in Libya, out of these 130 were detained in Al-Marj and 300 were detained in Misratah. Further, according to reports, other refugees are being held at various other places in Libya such as Al Khums, Zlitan, Al Zawia, Banghazi and Al Kufrah.

The number of refugees held in Misratah has been increasing and by 11 June 2007, there were a total of 418 people in the detention centre. Out of these detainees there were 314 Eritreans, 87 Ethiopians and 17 Somali nationals. Of the 314 Eritreans, there were 274 males, 36 females and 4 children (3 girls and a boy, the youngest being a 3 month old girl who was born in the prison and the oldest being a 7 year old). Of the 87 Ethiopians, there were 69 men and 18 women. Of the Somalis there were 16 men and one woman.

The longest serving detainee has been held for a period of two years. 40 more women were admitted to the detention centre on 23 June 2007, a day before the third interview. Some of these women were arrested while going to work and others were arrested at home. According to reports, the girls informed the detainees that they were told that they were being arrested to join a group that will be deported shortly. A group of men was also arrested with the girls and taken to an undisclosed place. The detainees assume that they were deported. Further, within three days of 8 July 2007, 60 more prisoners had been added to the already large number of prisoners at Misratah.

Prison Conditions

The detainees are held in cells roughly measuring 4.5 metres by 4.5 metres. Around 70 people are kept in one cell, resulting in overcrowding. Women and children are kept in separate rooms. There are no windows in the rooms. The lighting in the rooms is controlled by the prison wardens. Each detainee is provided with two blankets only, there are no mattresses or beds. The detainees spread one blanket on the floor and use the other blanket to cover themselves while they sleep. Some detainees share the blankets of other cellmates. Each room has a toilet facility but the toilets tend to overflow and the water enters the rooms where the detainees sleep, making the place unhygienic. The detainees complain that the prison cells are damp and humid all the time.

Health Conditions

The detainees are not being provided with proper food. They are given small meals which are not enough for them. Their drinking water is not clean and tastes salty; hence the detainees find it very difficult to drink.

Further, the detainees are not provided with appropriate medical facilities. According to one refugee, ‘almost every single person’ suffers from some skin reaction/allergy due to unhygienic conditions. He further states that some are even suffering from malaria and lung cancer. The youngest detainee, a three-month-old baby girl, is suffering a lot. She was born in the prison and her mother did not receive any medical assistance during pregnancy and after her birth. Six people suspected of being infected with T.B were recently taken out of the prison, their current whereabouts is not known.


According to reports, many detainees have been beaten with sticks. Male detainees are often taken out, beaten and verbally abused and are told that they are slaves. Female detainees have also been taken out and raped by prison guards, often when the guards tend to get drunk before the weekend, on Thursdays.

Sometimes prison guards come in the middle of the night and take out a few detainees and tie them up for 6 to 7 hours then set them free in the morning. Many detainees are under a lot of mental stress due to the inhumane conditions they are held in. According to AI, some detainees may have even died in other prisons due to the torture inflicted by the Libyan authorities.

Right to Visit

Only a few personnel have been allowed to visit the detention centre and observe the prison conditions, otherwise, there is a strict restriction against allowing access to any outsider. A group of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) representatives visited the detention centre roughly three months before IHRC conducted this research. They were only permitted to make a list of the detainees’ names and take their pictures. They were not allowed to communicate with the detainees or document their comments. Further, an Eritrean girl used to visit them sometimes but she always had to bribe the prison guards to be allowed inside the facility. She was only allowed to observe the detainees from a distance.

All these Eritrean refugees in Misratah are living in constant fear of being deported. According to a refugee, ‘we are just waiting and expecting the worst.’ Those who have been deported in the past have been subjected to severe torture and physical abuse, so much so that some have even died in custody.

On 3 July 2007, about a 100 people were taken by the Libyan authorities from the detention centre at Misratah to be deported. This group mainly consisted of Ethiopians and some Eritreans. According to reports, the prisoners resisted being taken out and revolted against the prison guards; hence the guards used tear gas on them, beat them up and took them by force.

According to AI, on 21 July 2004, 110 Eritreans were deported from Libya who were ‘arrested, tortured and detained incommunicado in secret military prisons’ when they arrived in Eritrea. The same article further states that another 76 Eritrean refugees were being deported on 27 August 2004 but they managed to hijack their plane and force it to land in Sudan where many of them were given refugee status. UNHCR representatives interviewed 60 of these refugees who testified to being subjected to ‘ill-treatment in Libya; detention without charge; no access to a lawyer; no opportunity to seek asylum; confiscation of belongings.’ They had not even been informed that they were being deported to Eritrea and they only found out after the plane took off.

Abuse of Refugee Rights in Libya

Many refugees from other countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Liberia that have entered Libya as illegal migrants or sought asylum, have faced similar abuse and torture. Some may have even died from the ill-treatment. Many have been forcibly returned to their countries of origin where they may face serious human rights violations.

According to an AI briefing of April 2005, Libya has failed to recognize the ‘presence of refugees and asylum seekers’ in its country, nor does it allow the UNHCR to ‘operate its proper protection mandate.’ By the end of 2003, there were 12 000 refugees in Libya, as estimated by the UNHCR.

Libya has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Organization of African Unity Convention, according to both of which Libya is obliged ‘not to return anyone to a country where they would be at risk of serious human rights violations, including torture.’ Libya also became a state party to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in June 2004. However, Libya’s treatment of refugees is contrary to its commitment to the above-mentioned conventions and a blatant violation of its promises to the international community.

To date Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no ‘formal working agreement with the UNHCR,’ states Human Rights Watch 2007 report on Libya. Further, according to AI’s 2007 report, many foreigners, asylum seekers and migrants continue to be ill-treated in Libya. The report also stated that the Libyan authorities ‘had deported some 50,000 from the beginning of the year [2006] until 6 November [2006], compared with fewer than 5,000 in 2004.’

10 July 2007



Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
United Kingdom

Telephone (+44) 20 8904 4222
Fax (+44) 20 8904 5183

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