The U.N. Is Leaving Migrants to Die in Libya

The U.N. Is Leaving Migrants to Die in Libya

The European Union is funding the Libyan coast guard to keep migrants out of Europe and detain them in a failed state—and that leaves them at the mercy of militias and human traffickers.


Migrants at a detention center in Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, on June 17, 2017. TAHA JAWASHI/AFP/Getty Images

(foreignpolicy)—Over three days last October, Fatima Ausman Darboe watched her 7-year-old son dying from appendicitis. His stomach swelled, and he writhed in pain. She held him as his condition deteriorated. Most other mothers could have brought their child to a hospital, but Darboe was locked up inside a detention center in the Libyan desert. Instead, she called for guards to help. She begged, she pleaded, and her appeals were ignored.

Her little boy died in a car. The Zintan detention center’s manager had finally taken pity on them and drove the child toward a hospital himself. The International Medical Corps, the organization supposed to be providing life-saving care in the detention center, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—the United Nations agencies meant to be providing some additional assistance—were nowhere to be found. 

UNHCR declined to comment on this case, while the International Medical Corps did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a written statement to Foreign Policy, IOM said the death was a “stark reminder of the terrible conditions migrants are forced to endure in detention centers” and that it had suspended health assistance in Zintan between October 2018 and this January “due to access issues with the management.”

The local Libyan community in Zintan, where Darboe was being held, refused to allow the burial of non-Muslim detainees, but her family was Muslim. Despite this, her son wasn’t laid to rest for a month. Darboe and her husband originally came from the West African nation of Gambia, a small sliver of a country surrounded by Senegal, but they had lived in Libya for years. It was only when her husband’s health deteriorated that they tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, in the hope of finding better medical care. Instead, like tens of thousands of others, they were caught and locked up in indefinite detention, in a system decried by former U.N. Human Rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein as “an outrage to the conscience of humanity.”

Weeks after Darboe’s son was buried, her husband died, too, seemingly from a stroke triggered by the shock of losing their child. Darboe, who was locked in a separate women’s hall, never got to say goodbye, though she begged to see her husband in the hours before his death. When she found out he was gone, Darboe said, she went into extreme shock. “I could not talk, I could not do anything. … All my body was just shaking,” she told Foreign Policy.