Migrant expulsions from Tunisia to Libya fuel extortion, abuse -UN briefing

FILE PHOTO: Tunisian coast guards try to stop migrants at sea, off Sfax
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By David Lewis

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Tunisian border guards have rounded up migrants and passed them to counterparts in Libya where they have faced forced labour, extortion, torture and killing, according to a confidential U.N. human rights briefing seen by Reuters.

The two nations are vital partners in the European Union's efforts to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean from North Africa into southern Europe.

Hundreds of migrants in Tunisia were caught in a wave of detentions and expulsions to Libya in the second half of last year, according to the briefing, dated Jan. 23. It was based on interviews with 18 former detainees as well as photographic and video evidence of torture in one of the facilities.

Tarek Lamloum, a Libyan human rights expert, said such transfers had taken place as recently as early May. About 2,000 migrants detained by Tunisia had been passed to the Libyans this year, he said, citing interviews with more than 30 migrants

The U.N. briefing, which has not been previously reported, was shared with diplomats in the region.

"Collective expulsions from Tunisia to Libya and the associated arbitrary detention of migrants are fuelling extortion rackets and cycles of abuse, which are already widespread human rights issues in Libya," the U.N. briefing said.

Libyan officials were demanding thousands of dollars in exchange for releasing some migrants, according to the briefing.

"The situation serves the interest of those who prey on the vulnerable, including human traffickers," it added.

Neither Libyan nor Tunisian authorities responded to requests for comment on the U.N. briefing.

A spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Libya said they could not comment. On April 16, Abdoulaye Bathily, then the top U.N. official there, said he was "deeply concerned about the dire situation of migrants and refugees in Libya who endure human rights violations throughout the migration process".

The European Union said last year it would spend 800 million euros through 2024 across North Africa to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. Immigration was a leading concern for voters in European elections last week that saw far-right parties make gains.

In the first four months of this year, arrivals of migrants in Europe via the central Mediterranean were down over 60 percent from the same period of 2023. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on June 4 the decline was "above all" due to help from Tunisia and Libya.

Rights groups, however, say the EU policy of farming out immigration control to third countries in return for aid leads to abuse and fails to address the underlying issues.

In May, Tunisia's President Kais Saied said hundreds of people were arriving every day and his country was coordinating migrant returns with neighbours. The government has in the past said it respects human rights. Libyan authorities say they work with neighbours to solve migration issues.

Reuters was unable to verify independently the accounts of abuse in the U.N. briefing.

A U.N. fact-finding mission concluded last year that crimes against humanity had been committed against migrants in Libya in some detention centres managed by units that received backing from the EU.

A spokesperson for the European Commission did not provide answers to questions sent by Reuters.

BURNED ALIVE, SHOT

The latest U.N. briefing said there was a pattern where Tunisian border officials coordinated with Libyan counterparts to transfer migrants to either al-Assa or Nalout detention facilities, just over the border in Libya.

Migrants are held for periods varying from a few days to several weeks before they are transferred to the Bir al-Ghanam detention facility, closer to Tripoli, the briefing said.

The facilities are managed by Libya's Department to Combat Illegal Migration (DCIM) and the Libyan Coast Guard.

The U.N. report said that the DCIM has continuously denied U.N. officials access to the locations.

Migrants interviewed for the U.N. briefing came from Palestine, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan. Getting information from African migrants was harder as they were being deported and communication with them was more complicated.

Three of the migrants interviewed had scars and signs of torture, the briefing said.

The U.N. briefing from January described the conditions at al-Assa and Bir al-Ghanam as "abhorrent".

"Hundreds of detainees have been crammed in hangars and cells, often with one functional toilet, and no sanitation or ventilation," it said.

At Bir al-Ghana, officials allegedly extorted migrants $2,500-$4,000 for their release, depending on their nationality.

In the al-Assa facility, border guards burned alive a Sudanese man and shot another detainee for unknown reasons, witnesses told the U.N., according to the January briefing .

Former detainees identified people traffickers among the border guard officials working there, it added.

"The current approach to migration and border management is not working," the January briefing said, calling for Libya to decriminalise migrants who enter the country illegally and for all international support for border management to adhere to human rights.

(This story has been refiled to correct the name to 'Lamloum', not 'Lamloun', in paragraph 4)

(Reporting by David Lewis; Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis, Ahmed Elumani in Tripoli; Editing by Daniel Flynn)