MSF CANADA MAGAZINE | Digital Edition | Summer 2017
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Tara Newell, an emergency operational manager with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has seen a lot of desperate situations in her 12 years working on the front lines of humanitarian emergencies. But nothing prepared the Canadian from London, Ontario, for what she saw last year when she first travelled to Libya to assess the medical conditions in the country’s notorious migrant detention centres.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen,” she says. “It was so much misery and abuse in one place, and an utter lack of human dignity. People were suffering beyond any measure that I have seen before with my own eyes.”
Newell and her colleagues from MSF’s operations centre in Amsterdam went to Libya to follow up on testimony gathered from people rescued from migrant vessels crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Those accounts described systematic and vicious abuse, torture and extortion by people smugglers operating out of Libya - and included mention of detention centres where those unable to produce ransom payments were kept indefinitely in abysmal conditions, until they were either tortured, sold off as slave labour or left to die.
“It was unbelievably difficult,” Newell says of the MSF fact-finding mission. “For one thing, it’s a very high security context, and so a pretty challenging environment to work in. But we were able to get a first layer of access into at least some of the official centres.”
In theory, the migration detention centres in Libya are official facilities where illegal migrants travelling without documentation are detained after arrest. In practice, there are also many unofficial ones run by private militias and criminal gangs seeking to make a profit, and even the official centres are operated at arm’s length from government control. Newell’s team sought to provide medical care to detainees, but it was not easy to gain access. When they did finally manage to visit some detention populations and assess their medical needs, Newell and her colleagues were overwhelmed by some of what they saw.
“It was horrific,” says Newell. “In one particular centre, more than 200 people were crammed into a tiny room, with no windows, no space to move, nowhere to go to the bathroom. And people were trapped in these conditions, with no hope of leaving. They were sick, they had skin infections, diarrhea, and they were kept hunched over in filth all day. There were young men who were severely malnourished, which is not something you see very often, even in places experiencing food crises.”
Foreigners, and especially sub-Saharan Africans — some of whom have been living and working in Libya for decades — are often arbitrarily picked up and thrown into detention, where they are at the mercy of captors seeking to maximize ransom or other revenue from detainees. Newell met prisoners who had been imprisoned for over a year, with no access to a phone, the outside world, or even basic amounts of food and water. Many had no idea why they were there or whether they would ever leave.
“This is man-made inhumanity imposed on other people,” Newell says. “I’ve met many other people fleeing terrible suffering in my MSF experience but they have not been deprived of their will like this.”
TORTURE, RANSOM AND EXTORTION
Almost all migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East to Europe pass through Libya. Since former dictator Muammar Gaddafi was removed from power in 2011, the country has become a lawless place, with three separate governments vying for power. The criminal gangs that control the people-smuggling trade are rapacious and brutal, and operate with impunity. Militias run the detention centres with the intent of squeezing as much profit out of their captives as possible. They torture prisoners to get ransom from their families, or sell them as wares. When the migrants ferried across the Mediterranean by people smugglers get sent back to Libya, they can expect to end up in detention and face horrifying conditions.
“I have seen a lot while working with MSF for 12 years, but visiting that first detention centre is the only time I have emotionally lost it,” Newell says. “At one moment I had to leave the space and take a deep breath. I didn’t know what to do at that moment, it was so overwhelming.”
MSF medical teams are now making regular visits to several official detention centres, checking medical conditions, delivering primary care and trying to improve conditions by implementing sanitation measures and providing food where possible.
“I’m very glad MSF is there,” Newell says. “We can get access and we are one of the few organizations who can get around and find a way to be there. The population desperately needs us and want us to be there. And until people are treated with basic human dignity, we hope to continue to be there.”
ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE
Newell has been among the front-line MSF representatives to bring the humanitarian situation in the Libyan detention centres to the attention of the European Union and other European state actors, in the hope that it will prevent more migrants from being returned to Libya after being rescued at sea, which would likely result in them facing torture, abuse and violence.
“In the centres, every person in there will look you in the eyes and say, ‘Please don’t stop coming,’ “ Newell says. “ ‘You are the only people who touch us and look us in the eyes and care about us. We can’t speak because we are voiceless. You are the only ones who can do something about us.’ ”
Read more about the humanitarian crisis in Libya:
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