Vulnerable Migrant Workers in Tripoli Need Protection
September 4, 2011

It’s a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli. The NTC should stop arresting African migrants and black Libyans unless it has concrete evidence of criminal activity. It should also take immediate steps to protect them from violence and abuse. 

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch

(Tripoli) – The de facto authorities in Tripoli, the National Transitional Council (NTC), should stop the arbitrary arrests and abuse of African migrant workers and black Libyans assumed to be mercenaries, Human Rights Watch said today. They should release those detained as mercenaries solely due to their dark skin color, Human Rights Watch said, and provide prompt judicial review to any for whom there is evidence of criminal activity.

Both the NTC and those who are supporting it need to prioritize setting up a justice system capable of providing such review of detainees as quickly as possible.

The NTC should also implement its stated commitment to human rights by ensuring the security of tens of thousands of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, who face harassment and violence from both armed rebel fighters and Libyan citizens who accuse them of having fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi, Human Rights Watch said.

“It’s a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The NTC should stop arresting African migrants and black Libyans unless it has concrete evidence of criminal activity. It should also take immediate steps to protect them from violence and abuse.”

Mass Arrests, Fear of Mercenaries
Over the past week security forces newly operating in neighborhoods around the capital, staffed mostly by armed young men, have conducted mass arrests of migrant workers from other African countries such as Chad, Sudan, Niger, and Mali, holding them in makeshift detention facilities, including a school and a soccer club. Human Rights Watch visited two such facilities and one prison, where the majority of African detainees interviewed claimed to be migrant workers detained simply because of their nationality and that they were not pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. Prior to the uprising, between 1 and 2 million African migrant workers were in Libya.

Human Rights Watch has not found evidence of killings of Africans in Tripoli or systematic abuse of detainees, but the widespread arbitrary arrests and frequent abuse have created a grave sense of fear among the city’s African population, Human Rights Watch said.

The local authorities making these arrests say they will investigate the detainees’ claims and release them if officials determine they committed no crimes. Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to release immediately all those who were detained without evidence of unlawful activity. Human Rights Watch urged the NTC to ensure that those detained because of concrete evidence indicating they committed crimes receive as prompt a judicial review as possible.

In Tripoli Human Rights Watch has found evidence that the Gaddafi government recruited and used African mercenaries from Chad, Sudan, and other countries. Human Rights Watch researchers located a large base used by hundreds of mercenaries from other African countries since February 2011, who were recruited and commanded by the 32nd Brigade of Khamis Gaddafi.

“The NTC has legitimate concerns about unlawful mercenaries and violent activity, but it can’t simply arrest dark-skinned men just in case they think they might be mercenaries,” said Whitson. “African migrants have worked in Libya for many years, often carrying out the most unpleasant jobs, and this is no way to treat those who stayed put during the uprising.”

Mass Arrests, Poor Conditions in Detention Centers
At one makeshift detention facility in Tripoli’s Old City, at the Bab al-Bahr soccer club, Human Rights Watch watched on August 31, 2011, as armed young men from the neighborhood brought in about two dozen black men. “They were Africans fighting for Gaddafi,” one of the armed men said. About one hour later, a few dozen of the detainees were transferred from the soccer club to another facility. During the transfer, the wives and children of the detainees angrily demanded information about where their husbands were being taken.

A member of the Old City council, Salem Salem, who said he was in charge of the Bab al-Bahr facility, told Human Rights Watch that local security forces had arrested between 200 and 300 men over the previous three days. All of them were foreign fighters, he said, without providing details.

“We are not fighting our brothers; we are fighting mercenaries,” he said. At the same time he suggested that some of those arrested were not mercenaries, but people in need of protection from Libyans who wrongly believed them to be mercenaries.

“They are safe now, safe from revenge,” he said.

Salem allowed Human Rights Watch to interview four of the detainees at the soccer club, all of them older men he said were being released. One of the men was a dark-skinned Libyan from the far south. Another, a 60-year-old named Othman, said he was born in Chad but had lived in Libya for 30 years and had been a Libyan citizen since 1991. About 10 armed men arrested him on the afternoon of August 28, he said.

“I saw them arresting lots of people on the street,” Othman said. “All of them were dark-skinned, about 100 people walking here in a big group.” Othman said the armed men did not beat him but he saw them slap and lightly punch a few of the roughly 200 detainees on the soccer field.

Salem did not allow Human Rights Watch to inspect the soccer field where the other detainees were being held.

The widespread neighborhood arrests seem to be a decentralized process, Human Rights Watch said, with no apparent oversight by the NTC. Two Tripoli members of the NTC defended the arrests, saying they were necessary to ensure security and, in the words of NTC member Abdulrzag Elaradi, to “secure the revolution.” But both said that detainees must be treated humanely and the NTC would not tolerate maltreatment or indefinite detention.

At another facility, the Maftuah prison in the Fernaj neighborhood, Human Rights Watch saw about 300 detainees on September 1, including some who had been wounded in fighting. About 50 of the detainees were Libyan and the rest were sub-Saharan Africans. Most of the Africans whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in groups in their crowded cells said that armed men had picked them up for no reason after NTC forces took control of Tripoli.

The conditions for the Libyan detainees were acceptable, but the sub-Saharan Africans were in overcrowded cells with a putrid stench; one cell had 26 people and six mattresses. The African men Human Rights Watch interviewed complained of inadequate water, poor sanitation, and not being allowed to make phone calls to ask family members to bring their documents.

Musa S., a 25-year-old from Mali, said armed Libyan men arrested him on August 21 at his house in the Bin Ashour neighborhood. He explained:

At about 10 p.m. a big group of Libyans came with the owner of the building. They tied us up, took all of our passports and possessions, and beat us. They brought us to a big mosque in the neighborhood, and then they went to other African houses and arrested them. In the end, they had more than 200 Africans in there. Then they put us on vehicles and took us around town shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” [“God is great”] and saying we were mercenaries they had captured.

At a detention facility at a school in the Intisar neighborhood, the local council held 76 detainees on September 1, three of them women. About half of the detainees appeared to be sub-Saharan Africans from countries such as Sudan, Chad, Mali, and Niger. The rest, including the three women, were Libyans accused of having fought for Gaddafi. The neighborhood is next to Bab al-Azaziya, Gaddafi’s massive compound and the scene of heavy fighting. On September 1 Human Rights Watch saw the prisoners being prepared for transfer to another facility at the Mitiga air base.

Africans Seeking Safety in Numbers
The fear of arrest and intimidation has forced some African migrants to seek safety in numbers, with groups staying in private homes, sending only women to get food and water. Human Rights Watch visited one such home in the Girgarish neighborhood, where 30 Nigerian migrant workers were staying. On August 30, they said, a group of Libyans armed with knives and sticks had come into the house to search for weapons. They found none, they said, but stole about 300 Libyan dinars (US$252) and five mobile phones. Two of the Nigerians said the Libyans lightly beat them when they protested the theft.

“I’m from Abu Salim [neighborhood], but our lives are not safe there because they say we’re mercenaries,” said one of the men, Thomas, a 34-year-old carpenter. “They regard all black men as mercenaries.”

A group of more than 200 African migrants, mostly Nigerians and Somalis, were staying at a farm in the Salahaddin neighborhood on the southern edge of Tripoli. Some of them had been there for as long as four months, and were afraid to leave. They complained of intimidation by armed men and shortages of food.

The largest cluster of displaced Africans has become the port at Janzur between Tripoli and Zawiya, where more than 1,000 people from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Niger, and other African countries have gathered over the past four months due to insecurity during the war. New arrivals continue to come despite the cessation of hostilities in Tripoli and Zawiya.

The migrants are living in dirty conditions under tarpaulins stretched between docked boats. They have a small shop but limited access to food and water.

Their main complaint, however, is the lack of security at the makeshift camp. Human Rights Watch spoke with more than a dozen men and one woman at the camp who said that armed Libyans go to the camp almost daily and harass and steal from them. About 200 women are in the camp. According to one of them, armed men frequently have raped women in the camp, but Human Rights Watch did not interview any alleged rape victims.

Human Rights Watch raised its concerns about the camp to two members of the NTC from Tripoli, Abdulrzag Elaradi and Dr. Alamin Bilhaj. Both expressed concern about conditions at the camp and promised to look into organizing guards to protect it.

According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, which is providing medical consultation to migrants at the farm in Salahaddin and the Janzur port, many of the people suffer from respiratory infections, skin diseases, and gastro-intestinal complaints.

“The Janzur port camp has one entrance and can easily be secured with a few armed guards,” Whitson said. “The NTC should move quickly to protect more than 1,000 vulnerable people until a lasting solution can be found.”

An Embryonic Judicial Process
There are signs that the NTC is beginning to organize the judicial process, Human Rights Watch said. Local authorities were transferring some detainees from makeshift facilities to Jdeida prison and a facility at the Matiga air base, now housing the Tripoli military council. A prosecutor’s office has apparently assumed control of the Maftuah prison and begun investigations. However to Human Rights Watch's knowledge no detainees in Tripoli have been brought before a judge to review the legality of their detention.

“It’s critical that the NTC work hard to set up at least a rudimentary system for judicial review, even in these difficult times,” Whitson said. “If security forces are going to make arrests, then the NTC has an obligation to ensure that detainees get a prompt review, are allowed to contact their families, and have the right to argue their case.”

Human Rights Watch also called on the African Union and its member states with citizens in Libya to press the NTC on the need to protect vulnerable migrants and refugees.

The NTC has pledged itself to meet international human rights standards. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that no one shall be deprived of their liberty except on grounds and procedures set out in law, that they should be informed of the reasons for their arrest immediately on being detained, and that they should be brought promptly before a judge.