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Migrants used as pawns in the battle for Tripoli

By Arianna Poletti
Posted on Monday, 8 July 2019 12:00

The devastated migrant detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli, after the airstrike that killed 53 people. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed)

Migrants are being used by both sides in the increasingly desperate fight to control Libya's capital.

Around 11pm in Tripoli on 2 July, an air strike attributed to the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar destroyed the Tajoura detention centre in the south-eastern suburbs of the capital, killing 53 of the 660 people present, according to the latest figures provided by the United Nations (UN).

The reactions were not long in coming.

  • While the African Union “strongly condemned” the strike, the European Union (EU) was more circumspect, repeating its “call on all sides in the conflict for the respect of international humanitarian law”. European migration policies and the financing of the Libyan coast guard are currently under debate.
  • UN secretary general António Guterres called for an international investigation into “this horrendous incident”, falling short of accusing Haftar, who has been bombarding several districts in the southern suburbs of Tripoli since early April.


Fathi Bashagha, minister of the interior for the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNA), said on Thursday that he could prove that an F-16 aircraft, built in the US and used by the United Arab Emirates, hit the hangar where the migrants were detained.

  • But the United States vetoed a condemnation by the UN Security Council – instead offering a statement by the US State Department that simply denounced an “abhorrent attack” without calling for a truce.

The LNA and GNA point the finger

So what really happened? There are two opposing versions of events.

  • LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari claimed that the attack targeted a weapons depot near the centre, denying any responsibility. At a press conference on Wednesday evening, he announced his support for the proposal for an independent international inquiry, claiming the GNA was using migrants as “human shields”.
  • The GNA immediately condemned the attack, placing the blame on “war criminal Khalifa Haftar” and also implicating the United Arab Emirates.

Michel Scarbonchi, a former Member of the European Parliament who is close to Haftar’s entourage, told Jeune Afrique that “since the beginning of the clashes, Sarraj’s forces have been installing ammunition dumps alongside migrants”, a strategy that “creates situations like this”.

But, as the London-based Libyan researcher Beshir Alzawawi says, “there were no air strikes in the area before the start of the Haftar offensive”.

GNA interior minister Bashagha even warned that the government may soon decide to “close all detention centres”, releasing migrants in order to avoid further massacres. This is clear leverage to push the EU to intervene.

  • A few hours after the attack, Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini held Haftar responsible for the attack.

However, a note from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), citing several testimonies from migrants present in Tajoura, reported that the guards at the detention centre had themselves fired at the fleeing migrants.

  • Last April, the head of the Tripoli government, Fayez al-Sarraj also tried to get the international community to react by declaring that “800,000 migrants, including several terrorists” would be ready to leave for the European coasts following the offensive launched by his rival – but only about 4,000 people are reported by the UN to be in the official centres of the targeted area.

Recurrent attacks on migrants

This attack on migrants, one of the most deadly, is not the first:

  • The Tajoura centre has been targeted before: on 7 May an air raid barely missed the building.
  • At the end of April, a pro-Haftar armed militia broke into the centre of Qasr bin Ghashir, 25 kilometres south of Tripoli, killing and injuring several people indiscriminately according to migrants who were there.
  • Since 4 April, only 600 migrants have been evacuated from the Tripoli area – 147 to Italy and the others to Niger – but at least five other detention centres are located near the front line and are at risk of being hit by the strikes.

Held against their will in an area under attack, these migrants find themselves at the heart of the strategic game between Haftar and the Tripoli government.

But their insecurity is not only due to the bombings:

  • While the Sarraj government claims to “have the fate of these people at heart”, for years numerous NGO reports have denounced cases of torture and a lack of access to the primary needs of detainees in these centres, which, whether recognised or informal, are managed by local armed militias.
  • “We have centres for migrants, whom we treat with dignity,” says Abdulhadi Lahweej, the Tobruk government’s foreign minister. “I made a surprise visit to a centre in Ganfouda, where there are more than 200 migrants. I listened to what they had to say to me. We have provided this centre with green spaces and places of worship for Christians. It is our duty,” added the pro-Haftar minister. He says: “There is no human trafficking in our regions. And we will never accept it,” and denounces on the use of migrants as mercenaries by the Sarraj forces.

Diverting attention

According to analyst Alzawawi, foreign intervention is precisely the goal sought by Haftar. “Since Tuesday, the debate has now turned around the issue of migrants, to which the EU is very sensitive. The lack of a strong and effective position by the international community is perceived as a green light for Haftar, who is targeting the institutions in Tripoli.”

It is no coincidence, he believes, that this attack took place a few days after the LNA withdrew from the Gharyan district, a strategic area retaken by forces allied to the Sarraj government. The aim could be to conceal the fact that the LNA is losing ground in the battle for Tripoli.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique

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