(Geneva) - Libyan authorities should immediately stop apparent efforts to deport a group of 245 Eritreans, some of whom have been severely beaten by guards, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch said that Libya should grant the United Nations refugee agency immediate access to the group, who were recently transported from the Misrata detention center to another detention center at al-Biraq, north of Sabha town.
"It's bad enough that Libya is brutalizing these detainees," said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch. "But deporting hundreds back to Eritrea, knowing full well that they could face torture and ill-treatment at home, would be a flagrant violation of Libya's legal obligations."
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recommended that host governments refrain from forcibly returning even rejected asylum seekers to Eritrea because of the risk that returned Eritreans will be subjected to detention and torture.
Libya threatened several times to close the refugee agency's office in Tripoli and then expelled the agency's Libya representative on June 7, 2010. In recent days, the government permitted UNHCR to resume extremely limited activities, allowing it to work only with refugees and asylum seekers previously registered by the agency.
The Eritreans had been held in the Misrata detention center in Libya's coastal region west of Tripoli. Tensions mounted after June 7 when the refugee agency's workers stopped visiting the Eritreans held there.
Eritrean detainees in Misrata have managed to inform Human Rights Watch that over the past few weeks Libyan officials forced them to complete bio-data forms in the Eritrean Tigrinya language provided by Eritrean embassy officials and to be photographed. Fearing that these steps were taken in preparation for their deportation, some detainees tried to escape on June 28, resulting in a confrontation between detainees and guards.
According to credible sources, on June 30 Libya transported 245 male Eritreans from Misrata to a remote detention center at al-Biraq, near Sabha, a town with an airport in the center of the country in the Sahara desert that has been the site of previous deportations to Sub-Saharan African countries. About 80 women and children remained behind in Misrata, some separated from male family members. Witnesses informed Human Rights Watch that the Eritreans were jammed into three shipping containers mounted on trucks for the 12-hour, non-stop journey through the desert.
Detainees told Human Rights Watch that Libyan guards severely beat them in the confrontation in Misrata, as well as on the way to al-Biraq; some were taken from Misrata to hospitals, while others arrived at al-Biraq with broken limbs. The detainees said they were given no food or water during the journey and no medical attention in al-Biraq. They also said that Libyan guards told them they would be deported to Eritrea.
"The brutal beatings, denial of food and water, transport through the desert in overcrowded trucks, and the imminent threat of deportation all appear to be punishment for the Misrata uprising," Frelick said. "Libyan authorities seem to think they can get away with these terrible abuses after stripping UNHCR of its ability to protect refugees and asylum seekers."
Both the Convention against Torture and the African Refugee Convention forbid Libya from sending individuals to countries where they face a serious risk of persecution or torture. Libya is also a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which, under article 13, prohibits arbitrary expulsion and entitles foreigners to an individual decision on their removal/expulsion.
The Human Rights Committee has interpreted article 7 of the ICCPR to forbid refoulement - or forced return - of persons to places where they would be at risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Under customary international law, Libya is also obliged not to return anyone to places where they may face persecution or where their lives or freedom would be at risk.
Human Rights Watch reported in January that the Libyan authorities had given Eritrean officials access to Eritrean migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya, including at the Misrata detention center, violating the right of asylum seekers to keep their refugee claims confidential from their home governments. Human Rights Watch warned then that granting officials such access suggested that the asylum seekers might be in danger of being forcibly returned to Eritrea.
Increasing numbers of Eritreans are fleeing the indefinite national military service imposed by the Eritrean government and pervasive arbitrary detention and torture. Eritrea routinely imprisons individuals caught trying to flee the country and has "shoot to kill" orders for anyone crossing the border without permission. If the government identifies someone who has successfully crossed into Ethiopia or Sudan, it subjects their family members to large fines and sometimes imprisonment.
On April 26, 2009, Libya's justice minister, Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, told Human Rights Watch that Libya would not deport Eritreans or Somalis, in line with Libya's 1969 Constitutional Proclamation, which says that "the extradition of political refugees is prohibited," as well as Law 20 of 1991, which says that "the Jamahiriya [Republic] supports the oppressed and...should not abandon the refugees and their protection."
In September 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report, "Pushed Back, Pushed Around," which documented frequent abuses of migrants while in detention in Libya, as well as the general practice of detaining migrants for indefinite periods of time. Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and has no asylum law or procedures. There is no formal mechanism for individuals seeking protection in Libya. The authorities make no distinction between refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. Libya has, however, ratified the African Refugee Convention.