Desperate African refugees pay to get into Libyan jails: UNHCR

GENEVA (Reuters) - African refugees in Libya are so desperate that some are bribing their way into detention centers in the hope of eventually being resettled out of the war-torn, lawless country, the United Nations said on Thursday.

Forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive in April to try to wrest control of Tripoli from forces aligned with the internationally-recognized government, which is based in the capital.

An air strike by opposition forces in July that killed more than 50 people at Tajoura detention center in Tripoli increased pressure on countries to find a safe haven for trapped refugees and migrants.

But despite continuing shelling and air attacks - fighting has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced 28,000 since April - few countries have agreed to take refugees out of Libya, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

“So far 14 states have pledged 6,611 places of resettlement...That’s all,” Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy for the central Mediterranean situation, told a briefing.

Canada, Norway and Italy are among them, while Niger and Rwanda have offered others temporary sanctuary, he said.

“There are many countries that could offer places of resettlement and that do not,” he added.

Libya has become the main conduit for Africans fleeing war and poverty trying to reach Europe since former leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, though the number of crossings dropped sharply from 2017 amid a European Union-backed push to block arrivals.

Libya is host to 45,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as an estimated 650,000 migrants, many of whom have found jobs there, Cochetel said.

More than 5,000 refugees and migrants are held in 19 official detention facilities, some controlled by armed groups, as well as an unknown number in squalid centers run by traffickers, he said. Rights groups say abuses are rife including beating and forced labor.

Detainees include those who left on boats for Europe and were brought back by the Libyan Coast Guard, Cochetel said, underlining it is not a safe country of asylum.

“And you have desperate individuals who go to detention centers, sometimes they pay to get inside detention centers. Sometimes they feel better protected in a detention center than outside,” Cochetel said.

“Because some nationalities outside detention centers are targeted by human traffickers, are kidnapped, and then you have extortion, you have torture.

“Some people don’t feel safe in many urban centers in Libya. So some of them prefer to be detained, even if conditions are not good in those detention centers. Others try to bribe their way to get inside the detention center in the hope that UNHCR will resettle them,” he said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay