The migrant center recently hit by an airstrike in Tripoli, Libya, was being used to facilitate sex traffic and store heavy weapons by the Government of National Accord (GNA), according to a whistleblower working for the UN in Libya.
The Tajoura migrant detention center, where a Libyan National Army (LNA) airstrike killed at least 53 people and triggered an international outcry on Wednesday, and the nearby Al Sabaa detention center, were both being used by GNA forces loyal to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to store anti-aircraft ammunition, missile systems and other weapons, alleged a Libyan UN worker.
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the dangers of his work, the UN whistleblower told Al Arabiya English: “We go in and out of the detention centers to administer humanitarian aid. The team has seen the weapons stored in the Tajoura and Al Sabaa detention centers since the start of the war in April.”
The source also said that the migrant detention centers were run by organized crime elements and by militias close to the GNA. Trafficking has been widespread during the current civil war between forces loyal to the Tripoli-based GNA and the Benghazi-based LNA, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
“These detention centers are also part of the sex trafficking we see in Libya. They are used to sell migrants as sex objects. We see this all the time in front of our faces. It is disturbing and disgusting and should offend all Libyans and the international community,” the whisteblower described.
Asked whether he reported the weapons and the sex trafficking to his superiors at the UN, the whistleblower said: “We did not report this up the chain inside the UN by official means, because if it was seen in a report, we would not have been allowed to do our work with the migrants in the centers and that it what is most important, because they are suffering.”
The testimony of the UN whistleblower appears to support a statement from the operations room of the LNA Air Force which criticized the GNA’s running of the camps and blamed it for the Tajoura air strike incident. The statement said the GNA was responsible “for not taking any measures to ensure the safety of the migrants in its jurisdiction… and for using [militia-run migrant detention centers] as storage sites for weapons and ammunition.” A senior GNA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also confirmed that the whistleblower’s claims were “truth”.
However, the whistleblower said the fact that weapons were being stored in the Tajoura migrant detention center did not exonerate the LNA from the humanitarian disaster of the airstrike and loss of life. “The LNA bombed the migrant hangar, which was not where the weapons were stored. They should have been more accurate,” he said.
Al Marsad previously reported that the airstrikes had targeted the headquarters of the al-Dhaman brigade, which supports the GNA, adjacent to the Tajoura migrant detention center. Satellite images retrieved from Maxar Technologies Inc. and released by the Associated Press appear to show two airstrikes on two separate buildings in the same compound.
Evan Hill, a journalist on the Visual Investigations desk at the New York Times, suggested that the satellite imagery “could indicate that there was an airstrike on a target next to the migrant detention facility.” According to two migrants interviewed by the Associated Press, the compound next to the center was being used as a weapons warehouse.
The policy of establishing and running migrant detention centers in Libya has been controversial. The EU and other international institutions have spent millions of dollars in foreign aid in a bid to prevent migrants reaching Europe by detaining them in Libya and eventually returning them to sub-Saharan Africa.
Numerous media reports have subsequently detailed the abuse of the migrants in Libya, including starvation, rape, and torture to extort funds from detainees’ families. Migrants who survive are sold in “slave markets”. Some make it to Europe, but many are put into leaking boats which smugglers know will capsize, killing women and children.
Last week, 80 migrants died after a boat from Zuwara in Libya sank off the coast of Tunisia. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) reports that so far in 2019, 3,750 migrants have been returned to shore, 2,544 have made it to Italy and 343 have died. 5,089 have been returned to their home countries so far this year. The IOM has also provided care to more than 15,000 migrants living in 26 migrant detention centers in Libya, including the centers in Tajoura and Al Sabaa.
However, Al Arabiya English has learnt that the from the end of 2019, the EU will withdraw funding for all projects connected with these controversial migrant detention centers, after considerable political pressure following the Tajoura airstrike incident. It is not clear if the EU was also aware of the extent of the weapons being stored at the migrant centers or their use for sex trafficking claims before making its decision to withdraw funding, but the UN whisteblower said the EU was “seeking to avoid further controversy”.
The LNA has previously declared that it would stop the migrant ‘slave trade’ in Libya if it won the civil war with the GNA and took over control of the country. According to the IOM, the trade in illegal migrants is worth more than $300m a year, with much of the money going to transnational organized crime gangs stretching between Libya, Italy, Malta and sub-Saharan Africa.
“There is a big international mafia trading in migrants, and the GNA militias in Tripoli control a key part of the jigsaw,” said an IOM source. “There is too much money for it to stop.”