Skip to main content
Police officers stand in the road during a curfew, imposed as part of precautionary measures against COVID-19, in Misrata, Libya, March 22, 2020.  © 2020 Reuters/Ayman Al-Sahili

(Beirut) – As Libyan authorities confirmed three COVID-19 cases in the country as of March 28, 2020, they need to be prepared to limit the spread of the virus in overcrowded detention facilities and shelters for displaced people, Human Rights Watch said today.

Libya’s health care system, along with other public services, has been battered by intermittent armed conflicts and political divisions since 2011.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic spreads in Libya, the country’s health care system won’t be able to cope with large numbers of patients,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Libya’s preparations need to include plans to protect and care for everyone, including vulnerable populations like those in custody or displaced person shelters.”

One measure authorities should implement is reducing the number of people in detention by releasing people unjustly or arbitrarily detained. People held arbitrarily long-term without charge or trial and migrants and asylum seekers detained solely because of their immigration status should be released. They should also consider releasing children, low-level, and nonviolent offenders, and people who have served most of their term.

Detainees most at risk such as older people, people with disabilities that put them at greater risk of infection, and people with pre-existing conditions should also be given alternatives to detention, Human Rights Watch said.

Authorities should release children and wives of suspected Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters who are held in Al-Jawiyya Prison in Misrata and Mitiga Prison in Tripoli and have not been accused of a crime. In the case of non-Libyans, foreign governments should bring home nationals who remain stranded in Libya in dire conditions.

On March 28, the Justice Ministry of the Government of  National Accord (GNA), one of two competing authorities in Libya, issued a decision to release 466 inmates from prisons in Tripoli controlled by the Justice Ministry, in order to reduce overcrowding. The list is to include pretrial detainees as well as detainees who meet the rules for conditional release.

While the release of some detainees in Tripoli would be a positive first step, authorities should do more to mitigate the risks of a major COVID-19 outbreak, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 25, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on all governments to “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 “rampaging through such … extremely vulnerable populations.”

The UN Mission in Libya has called for a “humanitarian pause” in the armed conflict to allow authorities to respond to the pandemic, and on March 24, urged authorities across Libya “to release all prisoners who are arbitrarily detained, and consider releasing pre-trial prisoners, and in particular, women, children, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees.”

According to the 2019 Global Health Security (GHS) Index, Libya was among the countries least prepared to prevent, detect, or respond to a health crisis. In a March 2020 report, the GHS Index placed Libya among 27 countries out of a total of 195 that were “most vulnerable to emerging outbreaks of illness.”

Governance in Libya remains divided between two entities engaged in an armed conflict since April 2019: the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the rival Interim Government based in eastern Libya and affiliated with the eastern-based armed group the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), previously known as Libyan National Army (LNA).

The UN estimates the current conflict in Tripoli has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced more than 150,000, some of whom live in crowded and unsanitary shelters, unable to return to their homes. The International Organization for Migration estimated that as of December 2019, a total of 355,672 people remained internally displaced in Libya.

Authorities need to prepare to prevent or contain the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers and shelters for displaced people and to isolate people with COVID-19 symptoms or testing positive for the infection, as well as all close contacts. Anyone getting sick while in custody should be given medical care. Detention centers must implement strict social distancing to prevent transmission, allowing six feet of separation among detainees and staff, including during meals and in cells and social areas. The staff and inmate population should have access to appropriate hygiene training and supplies and to testing for the virus, as well as mental health services. Measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in places of confinement should be based on the latest international guidance and not be punitive.

Authorities should ensure that individuals released or put on supervised leave have access to appropriate accommodations and health care. Conditions of release should not undermine public health goals – such as requiring people released to travel for regular check-ins.

Thousands of Libyans are held across the country by the interior, defense, and justice ministries of competing authorities in long-term arbitrary detention without charge. They face beatings, overcrowded conditions, and poor sanitation and cleaning.

Authorities should find alternatives to detention for several thousand migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees – including unaccompanied children – arbitrarily detained under the interior ministries of the two competing authorities. The detainees must contend with often nightmarish conditions, including insufficient food, water, sanitation material, and health care.

While Libyan authorities in both the east and west have announced some measures to combat a possible outbreak in territories under their control, these measures do not address the risks facing Libyans who have been internally displaced by the ongoing conflict and who are living in crowded shelters, Human Rights Watch said.

In Tripoli and the surrounding area, some internally displaced people are living in unfinished buildings that are still under construction and collective centers and schools that are organized by local communities. These shelters often lack adequate sanitation services, safe water, and solid waste management.

In Tripoli, the GNA on March 22 imposed an indefinite nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., with exemptions for medical staff. Mitiga Airport, the only airport currently in use for commercial air traffic in Tripoli, suspended all inbound and outbound flights on March 16, 2020.

In a statement on March 15, the GNA’s prime minister, Fayez Al-Serraj, announced emergency measures to take effect the next day, to preempt an outbreak in the country. These included closure of all entry points to Libya for three weeks, suspension of all schools and higher education, suspension of all events including sporting events, closure of restaurants and cafes as of 4 p.m. each day, a call to religious authorities to order people to pray at home, and the formation of a crisis response team to help communication between people and health facilities.

In the east, authorities on March 23 announced a daily curfew from 3 p.m. until 7 a.m. in all areas under the control of the LAAF. These include eastern cities, the city of Sebha in the south, and Sebratha on the western coast. Benina Airport, the main airport in the east, also suspended all inbound and outbound flights on March 22 for 3 weeks.

International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it. It also recognizes that during serious public health threats, restrictions on some rights can be justified when they have a legal basis. These restrictions must be strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate. States also have an obligation to ensure medical care for those in their custody at least equivalent to that available to the general population, and must not deny detainees, including asylum seekers or undocumented migrants, equal access to health care.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country