Some 800,000 illegal migrants are currently in Libya, 20,000 of whom are held in government detention centres, according to the head of the Libyan President Council Fayez Al-Sarraj.
Revealing the figures yesterday in a joint press conference with the President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, in Vienna, Al-Sarraj stressed that migration was as difficult an issue to Libya as it was for Europe.
On the country’s notorious detention camps, where thousands of sub-Saharan Africa migrants often find themselves tortured, raped and held indefinitely, the Libyan president attempted to defend the conditions as a result of the country’s difficult circumstances.
“We are working within the security and economic constraints that we have to respond to [detainees’] needs,” he argued.
However his Austrian counterpart bluntly criticised the detention facilities stating that “the situation in the camps is – to put it mildly – far from satisfactory.”
“My personal opinion is that under these circumstances, refugees shouldn’t be sent there at the moment,” President Van der Bellen concluded, whilst acknowledging that Sarraj’s Tripoli-backed Government of National Accord has no control over large swathes of the country.
“Of course the situation in the camps is not ideal, there are many problems, many challenges,” Al-Sarraj added. “But we must bear in mind the number of illegal migrants in Libya – more than 800,000 in the whole country. Not more than 20,000 of them are in the camps.”
“I wish we had a comprehensive approach to dealing with this problem. We’re talking about development for the countries of origin, about them taking back their citizens,” the Libyan premier concluded.
In an interview conducted earlier on with Austrian APA agency Al-Sarraj had slammed European criticism of Libya’s handling of migration policy as “unacceptable”.
“We call on those countries who are concerned about the migrants in the camps to help directly – by taking them into their own countries or to help with sending them back,” he said.
During his trip, the Libyan president also met Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz whose government has pushed a hard line on immigration since coming to power in December 2017. Kurz expressed his “deep gratitude” to the Libyan coastguard who he said had “saved 20,000 people [at sea] and taken them back” to Libya.
The Libyan coastguard has been patrolling the Mediterranean Sea since striking a deal with Italy in February 2017, which empowered Libya to bring migrants back to the country and incarcerate them in detention facilities.
Libyan authorities have been accused of numerous human rights abuses, with a UN report last month stating that migrants in the county faced “unimaginable horrors”. Based on interviews with some 1,300 people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, who came to Libya since 2017, the report documented thousands of cases of rape, torture, forced labour and extrajudicial executions.
Migration continues to be a contentious topic in Europe, with governments attempting to enact harsher regulations to prevent refugees and displaced people entering the continent, and putting pressure on North African countries to keep migrants from crossing the border illegally.
The Italian government has already given funds to Libyan authorities to round up refugees and prevent them from travelling to Europe, violating the international legal principle of “non-refoulement”, which protects migrants against returns to countries where they have reason to fear persecution.