Three weeks ago the UNHCR, without any explanation, was given its marching orders by the authorities in Tripoli. Now the reason appears to be plain: clearing the way for possible mass forced expulsions of the thousands of imprisoned refugees in the country.
At dawn yesterday, the 2 container lorries carrying around 300 Eritrean refugees, including women and at least 50 children, left the notorious Misratah detention camp, heading south to the interior of the country. All the refugees had been victims of Italy's 'push back' policy, intercepted on the journey from the Libyan coast towards Lampedusa and forced back into the arms of the Libyan police and military.
They had also collectively refused orders to give their identities to the Eritrean embassy, fearing that it was the first step to a collective expulsion according to the Fortress Europe website. Fearing the worst, many had tried to escape but were caught and beaten by guards. Tensions between the guards and detainees lead to further clashes, which were brutally put down by security forces.
So, on the night of the 29th, a Libyan army unit had raided the cells confiscating all mobile phones. They then herded everybody together, including 30 people who had sustained serious injuries in previous clashes and forced them into the converted shipping containers for the 12 hours journey to Sabha, deep in the Sahara desert. Many of the women and children are understood to have suffered from heat stroke in the cramped, hot and airless conditions in these glorified metal boxes.
The fate of the detainees is uncertain and, whilst the Libyans supposedly officially suspended deportations to Asmara three years ago, forced overland removal remains a possibility*. Although sources in Libya also claim that the mass transportation may be in punishment for the migrants' resistance and as a prelude to being broken up into smaller groups and relocated to other prisons
However, Libya faces a growing problem with all the migrants are entering the country enroute to Europe but are now unable to make it anywhere other than into Libyan prisons and detention camps. Italy and the rest of Europe, in the form of Frontex and the International Organisation for Migration, may well be paying for many of the costs of running Libya's extensive detention system but the detainee population cannot go on growing without serious consequences and Libya may well be on the verge of resorting to a 'radical' and highly controversial solution: mass forced expulsions.
* Eritrea is a single party state run by the PFDJ and military conscription is universal and effectively life-long. Many of the refugees in the Libyan camps have fled Eritrea to avoid conscription and all returned refugees are subject to arrest and imprisoned in forced labour camps. Many of these have been used to build the hotels and infrastructure that have sprung up along the Red Sea coast to cater for the country's burgeoning tourist industry. And because of the political situation in Eritrea, many countries have no extradition arrangements with the country.
So, whilst Libya has never been particularly interested in the views of the rest of the world when it comes to the fate of refugees and prisoners in its jails, Libya has superficially followed this convention. We say superficially, as reportedly it has a tacit agreement with Eritrea to return its nationals and, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, it has "allowed the IOM to open an EU-funded centre in March 2008 to return migrants as “a complementary concept to deportations.”" Additionally, in January this year it secretly deported 12 Eritreans who had previously been either government officials or in the military. Their fate is unknown.