CAIRO (AP) — Eritrean migrants detained in western Libya said Monday they were caught in the crossfire between rival militias, as international agencies called for speeding up resettlement.
They are among thousands of detained migrants, mostly apprehended by local forces funded by the European Union, who have suffered abuses at the hands of traffickers and are now caught up in the armed conflict. The Associated Press recently documented abuses at another detention facility, where hundreds of migrants have been held in filthy conditions , with barely enough food to survive.
Two migrants told The Associated Press that guards fled the Gharyan detention center, which houses nearly 30 migrants, including 10 suffering from tuberculosis. Militiamen stormed the center on Wednesday, holding one migrant at gunpoint and accusing him of supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army. The migrants say the same militia returned in the following days to try to recruit them as fighters.
Hifter’s forces were driven out of Gharyan last week in a surprise attack by militiamen aligned with the weak, U.N.-supported government in Tripoli. Hifter, who controls much of the country’s east and south, launched an offensive against Tripoli in April, seizing Gharyan and marching north before being forced back.
The fighting has threatened to plunge Libya into another bout of violence on the scale of the 2011 conflict that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and led to his death. The oil-rich country is split between two warring governments, each backed by militias that control different cities and towns.
The U.N. refugee agency has said that more than 3,000 migrants, most of them apprehended by EU-funded and trained Libyan coast guards while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, are at risk because they are held in detention centers close to the front lines.
In Gharyan, the migrants were transferred from another detention center because they were sick mostly with TB, according to Julien Raickman, the head of Doctors Without Borders mission in Libya.
A 35-year-old Eritrean told the AP that the fighting reached the facility he has been held in for months last week. The head of the detention center fled after telling migrants, “we are with Hifter … I can’t help you,” the detainee said. “We were hiding as we saw shooting 200 meters (yards) from us,” the migrant said. “We are very afraid.”
He and a second migrant said that militiamen broke the gates and immediately held one migrant under gunpoint, asking if he was with Hifter. After the only Arabic-speaking migrant explained that they were migrants sick with TB, they were let go. However, days later the militiamen returned and tried to recruit the migrants to join their forces.
“We told them we are sick and very weak. We can’t carry guns,” the migrant said. They appealed for help, saying their detention center is running out of food and water.
The group of 30 ended up in Gharyan after years on arduous journeys at the mercy of traffickers who torture migrants and hold them for ransom money from families back home. The migrants asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. They were previously detained at the Zintan detention center, where the AP found that detainees were held in poor conditions with little food or water.
Doctors Without Borders’ international chief recently described Libyan detention centers as a “nightmare” and accused the EU of using public money in training and funding the Libyan coast guards.
“I want to make sure that people understand that public money is being used to bring people to live in horrible conditions and that somehow we are directly contributing to immense suffering for people,” Joanne Liu said in an interview with RTÉ’s This Week on Sunday.
Raickman said that Europe needs to arrange resettlement to open the way for migrants stuck in Libya to leave the detention centers.
“They need immediate evacuation,” he said.
He added that Doctors Without Borders is sending emergency food and medical assistance, but it’s not a sustainable solution because of the changing security situation on the ground.