Migrant’s death exposes UN failures in Libya

After a horrific two-year ordeal across three countries – being bought and sold by people traffickers and surviving running out of fuel on an inflatable boat while trying to cross the Mediterranean – Mohamed finally gave up hope.

The Somali man’s wife Leyla, 21, recalls the day he burnt himself to death after hearing that they were not on a United Nations (UN) refugee list.

They were to be evacuated from the Triq al-Sikka Detention Centre, run by a pro-government militia in the capital, Tripoli, where the UN provides humanitarian assistance. (The names of the couple have been changed for Leyla’s security.)

“We were told it would be our turn to leave next. So when the new list came out, Mohamed asked me to go and check it. But our names weren’t there. I had to tell him that we’d been passed over again.

“So many people who came in after us had already left. Mohamed was so upset and confused. It was just before early evening prayers when it happened. I saw Mohamed. He was burnt. I was told he had covered himself in petrol and set himself on fire.”

Leyla says that conditions at the detention centre, one of about 12 in western Libya nominally run by the government in Tripoli, were deplorable.

“I was locked in a small room with 50 other women and just a bucket for a toilet.

“We barely ate and there wasn’t enough water. So many people were sick with TB, some died in my arms. I was beaten up and we were tortured – with electricity,” she told the BBC.

Mohamed died later in hospital, she said.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) told the BBC UN staff had visited the detention centre on the day he died, but that his death was unrelated to the visit.

“The deceased asylum seeker and his wife were both scheduled for an evacuation the next month,” it added.

The UNHCR denies that its work at the centre legitimises it, and says that it actually helps to improve conditions there. But some aid workers disagree and two groups have stopped working with the UNHCR.

The couple fled Islamist al-Shabab militants in Somalia in 2016 and ended up in the hands of people-trafficking gangs in Libya. –BBC

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