CAIRO (AP) – A major crackdown in western Libya has resulted in the detention of at least 4,000 migrants, including hundreds of women and children, officials said on Saturday. The UN said at least one young migrant was shot dead and 15 others injured, including two in serious conditions, during the crackdown.
The raids took place in the western town of Gargaresh on Friday as part of what authorities have described as a security campaign against illegal migration and drug trafficking. The Interior Ministry, which carried out the crackdown, made no mention of the arrest of traffickers or smugglers.
Officials said on Friday that 500 illegal migrants had been arrested, but by Saturday the number had risen to 4,000.
Gargaresh, a known hub for migrants and refugees, is about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) west of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. The city has seen several waves of migrant raids over the years, but the latest has been described by activists as the fiercest to date.
Since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that overthrew and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has become the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, in hope for a better life in Europe. Human traffickers have taken advantage of the chaos in the oil-rich country and smuggled migrants across the country’s long border with six nations. They then embark desperate migrants in ill-equipped rubber dinghies for risky journeys on the perilous route of the central Mediterranean.
The detainees were rounded up at a facility in Tripoli called the Collection and Return Center, said police colonel Nouri al-Grettli, head of the center.
He said the migrants have been distributed to detention centers in Tripoli and surrounding towns. Libya’s detention centers are miserable and overcrowded places where migrants have suffered abuse and severe mistreatment, rights activists say.
A government official said authorities would “deport as much as possible” migrants to their countries of origin. He said many detainees had been living in Libya illegally for years. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief the media.
Tarik Lamloum, a Libyan activist working with the Belaady Organization for Human Rights, said the raids involved human rights violations against migrants, especially in the way some women and children were detained.
Lamloum said many detained migrants have been registered with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, as refugees or asylum seekers.
Vincent Cochetel, the agency’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, told The Associated Press that early reports said at least one person was killed and 15 injured in the crackdown. He said that in some cases, security personnel used excessive force and chased people from their homes.
“We shouldn’t be surprised if people are scared and try to leave by sea,” he said.
Georgette Gagnon, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said unarmed migrants were harassed in their homes, beaten and shot dead during the crackdown which also resulted in a communication breakdown in Gargaresh.
Among the wounded, five from gunfire, two of them being treated in an intensive care unit, she said in a statement on Saturday evening.
The statement did not give further details.
The crackdown comes amid a spike in crossings and attempted crossings from the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The Libyan coast guard has intercepted around 25,300 migrants and returned them to Libyan coasts so far this year. More than 1,100 migrants have been reported dead or presumed dead off Libya in the first nine months of 2021, but the number is believed to be higher, according to the United Nations migration agency.
Hundreds of migrants were seen in images posted to social media by the Interior Ministry on Friday, sitting grouped together in a courtyard with the Collection and Return Center banner in the background.
Other footage of Gargaresh purporting to show migrants shows them with their hands tied behind their backs. An aerial photo showed men lying face down at a crossroads, surrounded by military trucks and guards.