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Refugees turned back by the EU forced to fight in Libya's civil war


CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Migrants sheltering in the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in Tajora shelter centre in Tripoli, Libya. Picture: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Migrants sheltering in the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in Tajora shelter centre in Tripoli, Libya. Picture: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Migrants sheltering in the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in Tajora shelter centre in Tripoli, Libya. Picture: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

It was morning when fighters entered the halls of Tajoura detention centre, where Alec had been living more than five months, and ordered him to come with them.

Crammed in, locked up with hundreds of others and fed one meal a day, many migrants and refugees lay listless and weak. He looked stronger. "They took us from jail then ordered us into uniforms," he said. Alec is one of scores taken from Libya's detention centres and forced to assist militants aligned with the United Nations-backed government in the capital Tripoli.

After speaking to sources in five Tripoli detention centres, reporters can reveal that migrants are being made to fight on the front line against General Khalifa Haftar's army.

They said they had been forced to move ammunition and load weapons, while some had gone to military bases on the front line to support militants.

Several say they had been ordered to fight. Alec (not his real name) said he was quickly given a gun. "They gave us four weapons. We fought with them but God opened a way so I escaped."

Alec is now in another city, from where he is planning to leave Libya.

The centres - at Abu Salim, Sabaa, Tajoura, Triq al-Sikka and Ain Zara - are ostensibly overseen by the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration, though many are run by militias. Most of the many thousands of men, women, and children were sent back from the Mediterranean by the EU-backed Libyan coastguard, and incarcerated indefinitely. The EU has spent millions of euros on training and equipment for the Libyan coastguard, in a bid to stop migration to Europe.

The UN-backed government has repeatedly warned that if fighting in Libya continues, 800,000 migrants could flee to Europe.

"It is extraordinary that the UN has not made a direct appeal to the EU to suspend the support it is giving to the Libyan coastguard, which enables refugees and migrants to be intercepted at sea and returned to abusive detention centres in Tripoli," said Jeff Crisp, former UN refugee agency official. "Europe has the option of doing nothing and that is what it will most likely do."

All interviewees described fighters arriving unexpectedly and examining migrants and refugees in order to select the fittest people. In Sabaa detention centre, right by a military base, several detainees said fighters come every few days. "Every time a lorry comes and takes involuntary workers," said an Eritrean there.

While most go unwillingly, he said some went because they were out of money and the Libyan authorities had stopped providing food. In Abu Salim detention centre, detainees said people had been isolated and hit with metal piping and sticks after refusing to go with militants.

In Triq al-Sikka, the unofficial headquarters of DCIM, a detainee who escaped said weapons were being kept beside the hall which refugees and migrants were locked into. He was taken from there to Ain Zara, in Tripoli's south east, where conflict rages.

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"The first three days were horrible. We were working hard, we were carrying weapons. They said we were going to stay until the war finished," he said. After three days, he escaped over a wall while the soldiers were distracted.

In previous clashes, detainees said dozens of men from Darfur, Sudan, were forced from Qasr bin Ghashir detention centre to help a militia aligned with Haftar. "They told us to fight but we refused. At that time they took us to [supply] ammunition," said one man.

"Detained migrants and refugees in Libya have already been placed in the utmost peril, so these reports are disturbing," said Magdalena Mughrabi, of Amnesty International.

"Coercing migrants and refugees into carrying weapons and ammunition may in some cases amount to treating civilians as human shields or hostages, which could amount to a war crime. These should be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice."


Pedro Sanchez, the Socialist prime minister, urged PSOE voters to turn up en-masse.

"Winning does not mean governing," he said in Valencia. He warned of the possibility of the "extreme-right being at the controls", in reference to Vox.

Mr Sanchez has regularly been accused of being a "danger" to the unity of Spain by right-wing opponents due to his reliance on Catalan pro-independence parties during his 10-month minority government.

Fearing an exodus of voters, Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), reached out to those tempted to jump on the Vox bandwagon. "We've already changed - we've already mended our ways," Mr Casado, who has moved the PP to the right, told supporters in Madrid.

The only way the PP can return to power is via a three-way coalition with the liberal Ciudadanos and Vox.

Mr Sanchez's best chance of holding on to power is by striking a deal with left-wing ally Podemos and Basque nationalists. But neither of these hypothetical blocs are guaranteed to win even a slender majority.

"There is an evident risk that a clear majority will not emerge," says Pablo Simon, a political analyst from Madrid's Carlos III University.

Mr Simon argues that a strong result for Vox could complicate a repeat of the three-way right coalition that took power in Andalucia last December.

"Parties with more extreme policies tend to have a greater shy vote. Vox focuses on symbolic cultural issues and its conservative social agenda and any government could become a prisoner of those demands," he warned.


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