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Migrants in Libya face uncertain future

On November 28, 2011

A recent U.N. report estimates that over 7,000 prisoners remain detained in Libya. A substantial percentage of these men, women, and children are sub-Saharan African migrants caught up in the volatile transition of power. Accounts of arbitrary arrest and torture have been documented by human rights agencies throughout the revolution.

Some imprisoned migrants state that they were forced to join pro-Gaddafi forces, but never participated in any actual killing. Others attest they were not involved in the war at all, and were only arrested because of their foreign appearance. The difficulty in validating both accusations and defenses is compounded by the absence of a judicial system.

Rights organizations as well as journalists are permitted access to prisons, and their reports have pressured the interim national government (NTC) to monitor these facilities more closely. The NTC formed a stabilization committee which, according to one report, has substantially improved conditions in at least one prison. Videos of some prisons in Libya can be found here and here.

But no matter the quality of captivity, the detention centers continue to hold the potential for serious human rights abuses. Under international law, arbitrary arrest and indefinite imprisonment are only permissible - temporarily - in cases of national emergency. But as the war in Libya subsides, the less excuses for these violations exist. Without an institutionalized legal system, migrants face a particularly uncertain fate.

Though most prisons hold Libyans as well as foreigners, migrants generally do not have the benefit of local family and friends to lobby on their behalves. Some prison officials argue that detaining migrants may be in the best interest of their safety until the rule of law and proper police forces are realized, as suspicion towards foreigners remains widespread. The association of migrants with pro-Gaddafi mercenaries triggered arbitrary imprisonments, as well as summary executions, from the uprising's early days. But such suggestions only fuel migrants' fear of arrest, preventing many from even venturing outside alone.

The U.N. stresses that the new Libyan government needs to reign in detention centers run by autonomous brigades and to effect standards of treatment that hold prison guards accountable. Some prisons have begun to free those who can prove their innocence, demonstrating that the NTC can facilitate the release of migrants even without the development of a wider judicial system. Such expeditious legal resolutions are essential to reversing the pro-Gaddafi stigma plaguing migrants, as well as to upholding the values of liberty and equality promulgated by the revolution.