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How violent political instability in Libya exacerbates migrants’ ‘living hell’

An airstrike on a migrant detention center in Libya has left at least 44 dead. The Libyan government blamed the so-called Libyan National Army, a group trying to seize Tripoli, for the deadly attack. John Yang reports and talks to Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the “living hell” migrants languishing in Libya face and the dynamics of the recent conflict.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the attack on a migrant detention center in Libya.

    As John Yang tells us, eight years of conflict and instability there are now enmeshed with the migrant and refugee crisis.

  • John Yang:

    Bags of clothing and abandoned shoes, remnants of life strewn throughout the blood-soaked debris of death.

    The early-morning airstrike hit the Tajoura migrant detention center in Tripoli, housing some 600 people, mostly North Africans. Emergency crews struggled to carry away body bags through the wreckage. Survivors said they had no warning and no protection.

  • Othman Musa:

    All what we know is, we are — we want U.N. to help people out of this place, because this place is dangerous.

  • John Yang:

    Libya's Government of National Accord, recognized by the United Nations, blamed the so-called Libyan National Army, or LNA, which is trying to seize Tripoli. The LNA acknowledged carrying out attacks in the area, but denied targeting the migrants.

  • Khaled El-Mahjoub (through translator):

    We have not issued an order targeting this shelter, and the site that we are talking about is the site of a militia.

  • John Yang:

    The LNA, under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, is supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. It controls Southern and Eastern Libya, but has met heavy resistance from militias defending Tripoli.

    Yesterday, an LNA commander warned of intensified assaults. This is the latest calamity in eight years of chaos in Libya. The country has been torn between competing factions since 2011, when the U.S. and allies help topple longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

    Fighting has also made an already desperate journey for migrants trying to reach Europe even more dangerous and deadly. An estimated 6,000 languish in Libyan detention, at least half close to the front lines of conflict.

    Elinor Raikes is Europe and North Africa director for the International Rescue Committee.

  • Elinor Raikes:

    In the last three months, Tripoli and the neighboring areas around Tripoli have become an active war zone. So now we have migrants who are in abysmal conditions in detention, but, on top of that, they can't flee to safer areas of the city.

  • John Yang:

    Many of the migrants were rounded up by Libya's Coast Guard, trained and funded by the European Union, to prevent their crossing the Mediterranean.

  • Elinor Raikes:

    Several member states of the E.U. have effectively begun criminalizing aid agencies who were providing search-and-rescue services in the Mediterranean Sea. And in the absence of those search-and-rescue operations, people who continue to try to flee Libya and cross the Mediterranean Sea are intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, and are returned to Libya, and are sent directly to the detention centers, one of

  • John Yang:

    Today's attack touched off fresh criticism of both Libyan and European migrant policy. A spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commission blamed the Libyans for failing to protect them.

  • Charlie Yaxley:

    This is a tragedy that was very much preventable, just where a couple of months ago, we called for the urgent evacuation of people from this specific detention center, after a similar airstrike injured two of the people inside.

  • John Yang:

    Several U.N. officials branded the attack a war crime. All sides called for an international investigation.

    Late today, an LNA spokesman said its forces carried out an airstrike on the only functioning airport in Tripoli. They said the target was the main control center for drones.

    Frederic Wehrey is just back from Libya. He is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Mr. Wehrey, thanks so much for joining us.

    The victims in this airstrike are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. How did Libya become a way station for them?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    It's always been that way because of its location just south of Europe.

    It's a very short sea crossing across the Mediterranean. But, of course, since the 2011 revolution, with really the collapse of state power in Libya, that's opened the gates, really, for this rush of migrants northward.

    Many of them are not counting on crossing the Mediterranean, but they do so after the deplorable conditions and abuse that they face in Libya. And, of course, the Europeans unfortunately have a closed-door policy, where they have been sending these migrants back to Libya, where they languish in these detention centers.

  • John Yang:

    And, as you say, it's not exactly a safe haven.

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Absolutely not.

    I mean, it amounts, I think, to a living hell. They're subjected to the full spectrum of unimaginable abuses, sexual torture, forced labor. And on top of that, you have got this recent conflict, which only adds to the misery.

  • John Yang:

    The result of the airstrike today is part of an intensifying campaign on the part of the Libyan National Army.

    What is going on? Why are they ramping up and taking — making airstrikes?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    They have always been conducting airstrikes. This is a densely populated city. There are apparently some ammunition depot, militia headquarters interspersed with the civilian facilities, civilian homes.

    When I was there, I saw the aftermath of two airstrikes or civilian homes. But, in the last week, there's really been an uptick in these airstrikes. And that's because the LNA, Khalifa Haftar's forces were ejected. They basically lost one of their key strategic bases in the west.

    And now they have announced that they're going to use all means really. The gloves are coming off. And so what you're seeing is a pattern of very reckless airstrikes. And the migrants center strike is the tragic result of that.

  • John Yang:

    And a lot of this turmoil, it was sort of brought on by the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, an allied coalition led by the United States.

    What's the United States' role been since then in trying to stabilize Libya?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    Unfortunately, it's been — it's been hands-of.

    After that 2011 revolution and the NATO intervention, President Obama really took a backseat for U.S. policy. He believed the Europeans and the United Nations should take the lead in stabilizing this country.

    And, unfortunately, it's been hands-off ever since. We have had a very ambivalent policy about this recent conflict, although President Trump has publicly endorsed General Khalifa Haftar's effort.

    But what I'm hearing from Libyans is, they would like more United States' diplomatic involvement to solve this crisis and put an end to this war.

  • John Yang:

    And one side of this conflict is being backed by the United Nations and the French. And then, as you say, Mr. Trump has sort of endorsed the other side, which is being supported by the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Emirates.

    Why — what do you make of Mr. Trump's intervention in this, or — we're told that he spoke to the general on the phone, and he's had some things to say about it. What's going on?

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    There's a number of ways to read that.

    I think, in Khalifa Haftar, he sees a fellow authoritarian. But, also, Haftar is backed, of course, by the Emirates and Egypt. And so Trump has very close ties to those countries, and there was probably some influence there.

    So, I mean, it's a real — I think it gave a real boost to Haftar's forces. I think that the real — the real deciding factor has been the arms and weapons and material that's been coming in to Haftar's aside from the United Arab Emirates and also Egypt.

  • John Yang:

    Fred Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thanks so much.

  • Frederic Wehrey:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

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