African, Syrian migrants in crosshairs of Libya’s war

Migrants walk to meet UN chief Antonio Guterres (unseen) during his visit to the Ain Zara detention center for migrants in Tripoli on April 4. (AFP)
Updated 11 April 2019

African, Syrian migrants in crosshairs of Libya’s war

  • The UN wants to move them urgently to safety

TRIPOLI, GENEVA: They trekked through the Sahara in hope of crossing the Mediterranean to a better life in Europe — but instead ended up in squalid detention centers and are now engulfed by war.

Thousands of African and Syrian migrants and refugees are trapped in Tripoli as a battle for the city draws closer.

The UN wants to move them urgently to safety, but this week only managed to relocate 150 to a protected facility with proper shelter, food and space for children.

So desperate is the situation that one detention center manager said he flung open the doors as fighting drew near.

“They can hear the clashes. And many are really scared,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said of the migrants.

They are crammed into disused warehouses, hangars and prisons where armed groups with no experience of handling refugees guard them, say witnesses and rights reports.

On the northern edge of Africa with a long Mediterranean coastline, Libya hosts more than 700,000 people who have fled their homelands, often trekking through desert in pursuit of their dream of crossing to a better life in Europe.

About 7,000 of them are in detention centers — mostly in Tripoli — where conditions were awful even before they began hearing gunfire and shelling as eastern forces approached a week ago.

Sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes under steel roofs in baking heat and without proper food, water or medical assistance, the detainees wait for a visit by international organizations or the chance of a laboring job, according to visitors, rights groups and UN officials. 

They are seldom allowed out for fresh air, and sometimes given just one meal a day, of pasta or bread, the sources said.

Many of the detainees were captured on arrival through the Sahara, or forcibly returned by patrols stopping their flimsy vessels in the Mediterranean.

‘Terrible deprivations’

Repeatedly warning of their plight, the UN refugee agency UNCHR took more than 150 Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Syrian refugees from the Ain Zara detention center in south Tripoli on Tuesday to its own facility in a nearby “safe zone.”

“Many refugees and migrants in Libya endure terrible deprivations. They are now at grave additional risk,” said Matthew Brook, UNHCR deputy chief of mission in Libya. At Ain Zara, the manager told Reuters he opened the doors on Wednesday to let another 150 terrified migrants into the streets as gunfire drew close. 

Qasr ben Gashir, Gharyan and Abu Salim detention centers are others closest to the front lines, as the LNA forces take southern suburbs of Tripoli.

“I let them go for their safety,” he said.

Qasr ben Gashir, Gharyan and Abu Salim detention centers are others closest to the front lines, as the eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar take southern suburbs of Tripoli.

According to UN figures, there are an estimated 660,000 migrants in Libya, and a further 58,000 classed as refugees or asylum-seekers fleeing home because of violence or persecution.

The UN human rights office has expressed fears the warring parties may use migrants as human shields of forcibly recruit them. It cites unconfirmed reports that some were coerced last year into fighting in Tajoura, just east of Tripoli, which is controlled by pro-militant armed groups.

Haftar’s forces accuse the Tripoli-based government of using migrants and criminals as human shields and fighters — though they have not provided evidence or given details.

“After the end of the battles, we will show this to the world,” spokesman Ahmad Mesmari told Reuters in Benghazi.

Spokespeople for the Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez Al-Serraj and its allied forces, which control the detention centers, did not respond to repeated requests by Reuters for comment on the migrants’ situation.

In past meetings with UN officials, however, they have insisted they are providing adequate conditions.

According to one UN report last December, migrants and refugees in Libya suffer a “terrible litany of violations” by a combination of state officials, armed groups and traffickers. “These include unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention, gang rape, slavery, forced labor and extortion,” it said.

A study last month by the Women’s Refugee Commission, a US-based charity, said refugees and migrants trying to reach Italy through Libya were victims of horrific sexual violence.

The abuse was commonplace along routes through North Africa: At border crossings and check points, during random stops by armed groups, and when migrants were kidnapped and held for ransom, said the report, titled “More Than One Million Pains.”


Hundreds of employees fired from Turkey’s Incirlik air base

Updated 25 January 2020

Hundreds of employees fired from Turkey’s Incirlik air base

  • Incirlik Air Base is located in Turkey’s Adana province, near the Syrian border, and it has been a strategic element in ties between Ankara and Washington
  • It has also played a key role for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against Daesh in Syria and Iraq in the past

ANKARA: More than 420 people working at a crucial military air base in southern Turkey have lost their jobs, with some analysts considering it symbolic of decreased cooperation levels with the US and as the Pentagon reconsiders Middle East deployments.
Incirlik Air Base is located in Turkey’s Adana province, near the Syrian border, and it has been a strategic element in ties between Ankara and Washington. It has also played a key role for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against Daesh in Syria and Iraq in the past, as well as hosting US nuclear warheads.
The Colorado-based company Vectrus System Corporation, which provides day-to-day maintenance and operation services at the base, terminated the contracts of almost half of its employees at the base earlier this month.
“The base surged to support OIR,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Arab News. “The Turkey-based staff for OIR has mostly left. So, the base is going back to its pre-OIR level of people, and that level requires less contractor support.”
Vectrus did not reply to Arab News’ request for comment about its decision to scale back at the base.
Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said the move was largely symbolic as the canceled contracts related to logistical support rather than the US military mission.
“But obviously, it comes against the background of some tensions in the US-Turkish relationship and previous hints by Ankara that it might reconsider the status of the Incirlik base,” he told Arab News. “The Pentagon is reconsidering its deployment across the Middle East and it might be looking to become less dependent on Incirlik without fully exiting this crucial military air base.”
Incirlik air base has been used in the past as a bargaining chip at times of tension between the two countries.
“Turkey may re-evaluate the status of the Incirlik Air Base if the US imposes sanctions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month in an interview with pro-government channel A-Haber, referring to the potential fallout from Turkey’s decision to buy an air defense system from Russia. 
Washington has threatened to use its Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act to punish Ankara for buying the S-400 system.
Seth J. Frantzman, who is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, said reports of the US reducing presence at Incirlik, or challenges to the US presence there, have been growing over the last years.
“Whether these reports relate to changes or are just random is unclear and it is important to note that the large interests of the military and history tend to mean the US does not simply walk away from bases, even if it reduces its role slowly over time,” he told Arab News.
The US has invested heavily in the Jordanian Muwaffaq Salti Air Base to expand its presence there.