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Homeland Security

If Coronavirus Hits Libyan Detention Centers It Would be a 'Massacre'

By Salem Solomon March 30, 2020

While much of the world is under orders to practice social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus, there are certain places where such distance is impossible.

Overcrowded migrant detention centers, particularly those in Libya, are among the places most at risk for an outbreak. With dozens of people sharing a room and little access to running water, these makeshift centers can be a breeding ground for disease in normal times. A highly contagious airborne virus like coronavirus could spread at lightning speed, say experts.

"Once coronavirus will spread in these detention centers, we are going to witness a massacre," Giulia Tranchina, a human rights lawyer based in London who represents asylum seekers, told VOA.

Tranchina said most of the camps in Libya are former animal stables or hangars where migrants must sleep on the floor or on mattresses packed tightly together. She cited the example of the Dhar El-Jebel detention camp in the mountains south of Tripoli, where 22 migrants died in one year.

"Because of the lack of food, water sanitation and lack of any medical care, so they all died of tuberculosis and starvation," said Tranchina, who is in direct contact with some of the refugees in Libya. "So, we can imagine what will happen once coronavirus will spread in these detention centers."

'Torture camps run by traffickers'

Figures about how many migrants are in Libya are difficult to come by. A study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated there are between 700,000 and 1 million migrants in the country. The U.N. estimated there are about 3,000 refugees and migrants in detention centers.

Tranchina said the official numbers do not tell the whole story. Many migrants are held in even worse conditions than those in the official centers and are unaccounted for. "There are a lot of detention centers run by the militias and the [opposition] forces in the territories that they control," she said. "And then there are hundreds of torture camps run by traffickers who are torturing people for ransom, raping them and enslaving them for many years. And we have no access to these people. No U.N. agency has access to these people."

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is one organization on the ground giving medical care to migrants. But they are unable to meet the overwhelming need. In May 2019, doctors visited the Dhar El-Jebel detention center and called the conditions "catastrophic" saying the tuberculosis outbreak had been raging for months without treatment.

"We've been calling repeatedly and continuously for the closure of these detention centers and the end of arbitrary detention," Sacha Petiot, MSF head of mission in Libya told VOA.

Petiot said a lasting solution would require an opening of temporary shelters where migrants could be safe. He also said there must be agreements by safe, third-party countries to resettle the migrants. To date, such agreements have been hard to get.

"For the moment, these resettlement slots in the European and Western countries are very limited. We're talking about 2,000 slots on average by the year," Petiot said. "While the general population of registered refugees and asylum seekers is over 46,000, which means that there is a huge lag. There is a bottleneck."

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