As It Happens

Detained migrants killed in Libya airstrike used as 'human shields': Doctors Without Borders

The people killed in an airstrike on a migrant detention centre in Libya never should have been there in the first place, says Doctors Without Borders. 

The attack killed at least 44 people at a detention centre near a military compound in northeast Tripoli

Debris covers the ground and an emergency vehicle after an airstrike at a detention centre in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya. (Hazem Ahmed/Associated Press)

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The people killed in an airstrike on a migrant detention centre in Libya never should have been there in the first place, says Doctors Without Borders. 

On Tuesday night, the men, women, and children, crammed in an internment camp for migrants in northeast Tripoli were woken by an explosion. The airstrike at Tajoura detention centre killed at least 44 people  and injured more than 130.

The United Nations says it should be investigated as a possible war crime.

In a statement, Libya's UN-backed government blamed the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, for the airstrike, and called for the UN support mission to establish a fact-finding committee to investigate.

Doctors Without Borders has been monitoring the conditions in the Tajoura centre and they were there just hours before the attack. Sam Turner, the group's head of mission in Libya, spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. Here is part of their conversation. 

What was your reaction when you heard about this airstrike on the camp in Tajoura?

Obviously, it was it was one of complete shock and disbelief that such an abhorrent act could have been conducted, once again targeting innocent civilians who are being held in detention in Libya.

I say that in part because it was just two months ago that I was standing in Tajoura detention centre following an airstrike on that compound that resulted in shrapnel tearing through the roof of the women's cell and landing about one metre from a sleeping baby on a mattress on the floor.

So it's absolutely unthinkable that we've had such a catastrophic event where so many people have lost their lives and many more are injured.

Libyan Red Crescent workers recover migrants bodies at the Tajoura detention centre. (Hazem Ahmed/Associated Press)

What have you been able to learn about what's happening on the ground there tonight?

Medical teams dispatched ambulances to support the referrals of people to hospitals. Our teams had been in this very cell yesterday during the day and they had been talking to the 120 people who were detained in this cell that was directly hit by this strike.

[On Wednesday], we've been following up with those hospitals that have been receiving the wounded with offers of support and we have referred some of those patients to private hospitals for further care.

We've also been onsite in Tajoura detention centre. We provided food and water to a large group of the people who were detained and not injured in the strike last night, but are obviously extremely distressed by the incident that happened there.

We've had our mental-health teams on site to be able to provide whatever support we can to them at this time.

You talked about the earlier airstrike on this compound. As part of this compound, I understand there is a building that stores munitions. Is that why it's a target?

The Tajoura detention centre is well-known to be situated in a much larger military compound that is clearly a major concern in terms of the ongoing fighting in and around the Tripoli area.

That does appear to have been the primary motivation for a strike in the past. But since very early on in the conflict, all of the GPS co-ordinates were shared of all of the detention centres, as well as other civilian locations and key infrastructure.

Those co-ordinates were shared with all the parties to the conflict to ensure that it was absolutely abundantly clear that these are civilian locations and should at no point be targeted by anyone in the course of the fighting.

Doctors Without Borders' Sam Turner says migrants are being used as 'human shields.' (Hazem Ahmed/Associated Press)

The UN is calling this a possible war crime. How do you see it?

I think it's clearly an atrocious act. At no point in conflict situations should civilians be targeted.

It's incredibly difficult to attribute blame entirely to one side or the other. On one hand, clearly under existing international humanitarian law, civilians should never be targeted in conflict.

But on the other, civilians should not be held in or around areas that may be a military target. And so keeping, detaining people, trapped against their will in a military location, is akin to using them as human shields.

What is absolutely clear is that detainees who are trapped in these locations must urgently be evacuated. And given there is no safe area within Libya for them to be moved to, then that is an international humanitarian evacuation that's required.

A migrant sits with their belongings after the airstrike. (Hazem Ahmed/Associated Press)

Why hasn't it happened sooner? Who do you hold responsible for the fact that these people were detained in a place that had already been hit, that was known to be dangerous, and a place from which there were cries that this had to change?

The primary responsibility for the safety and the well-being of anyone who is detained rests with the authority that is detaining them. And that, in this case, is the government of Libya.

If they are unable to provide these services or unable to assure their safety, then those people must immediately be released.

Now, that is at the national level. But when you take a step back and look at the regional dimensions of why exactly we have people detained in such inhumane conditions in Libya and at risk of such things occurring, we have to look at the migration context, and the fact that in the last five to 10 years, there has been a trend of people fleeing from Libya to get to Europe.

Whether those are refugees, asylum seekers or migrants, they have all been dealt with in the same callous way by European policies that push back the borders of Europe to places such as Libya and track people there and prevent them from moving that one step closer to safety and security that they all desire.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the people in this camp. They're being held in Libya. Where are they coming from and what have they faced?

The people held in Tajoura detention centre come from all walks of life and all across the world.

What is very clear about the makeup of the population is that a significant proportion, the vast majority, are refugees or asylum seekers. They are people who are only there because they are fleeing war, violence, persecution in their countries of origin and are absolutely unable to return home.

These people are entitled to international protection. And yet we have sat back and watched as they are trapped in these detention centres, languishing in these inhospitable conditions that are severely damaging to both their physical and mental health.

The UN has been calling on countries like Canada to accept more of the refugees currently detained in Libya. What resolution would you propose?

What we have asked for since the beginning of this conflict was the urgent international evacuation of people in conflict-affected or other high-risk detention centres in and around Tripoli.

That number is approximately 3,500 people. It's not very many people and yet still the governments of the world have been unable to step forward and provide realistic, practical options to get people out now.

And this is only being paid for in suffering and now, as we're seeing increasingly, the deaths of the people in these detention centres. 

Written by John McGill and Kevin Robertson with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has edited for length and clarity.