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Airstrike Hits Migrant Detention Center in Libya

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At least 44 people have died after an airstrike hit a migrant detention center near Tripoli, the capital of Libya. More than a hundred more were injured. A United Nations envoy says the attack could constitute a war crime, and it is drawing attention to the situation of migrants who are caught in Libya and attempting to cross the Mediterranean and into Europe.

Frederic Wehrey tracks Libya as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He joins us now. Welcome.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Thank you. Great to be here.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. Start with what we know about this detention center and others like it in Libya. Who are these migrants? Where are they coming from?

WEHREY: The majority of them are coming from sub-Saharan Africa. They're trying to make the very perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe. They're seeking jobs, a better life. They're fleeing conflict. Unfortunately the Europeans have this closed-door policy where they're basically putting these migrants back into Libya, basically subcontracting the migrant policy to Libyan militias. The migrants are kept in a series of horrid detention centers where they're subjected to torture, abuse, forced labor. And with this recent war, their situation has just gotten worse.

KELLY: Stay with the recent war for a second because I want you to put what has just happened into the context of what is happening more broadly in Libya, which of course has been stuck in civil war for many years now. But this latest outbreak of violence began just in April. Is that right?

WEHREY: That's right - on April 4 when the militia forces aligned with General Khalifa Haftar - he's a renegade general - launched an attack on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. He was claiming to liberate the capital from militias. But in fact, it was really just a power grab, and it's plunged the country into another round of civil war - horrendous conditions for civilians, over 700 deaths and thousands of people displaced from their homes.

KELLY: And I'm wondering how to square the situation now with - I remember interviewing you last year. You had a new book just out on Libya. You were telling me...

WEHREY: Yeah.

KELLY: ...This did not feel like a country at war, that markets were open, that there were signs of normalcy in Tripoli. That has now changed with these latest developments.

WEHREY: Tragically yes. I mean, of course the country's always had problems. But through international assistance and a U.N.-brokered effort, things were improving in Tripoli modestly. Libyans have a way of getting by. And of course that has all been reversed, so of course now you're seeing electricity blackouts, I mean, displaced. The militias have a newfound presence in the capital. So the country's really been put backward.

KELLY: I should mention you were just in Libya for a few weeks last month, in Tripoli.

WEHREY: That's right.

KELLY: How did the capital - how did the changes strike you since you'd been there a year ago?

WEHREY: A huge sense of despondency - I mean, huge humanitarian suffering, people, again, displaced from their homes - but a sense of resolve that people were committed to defending the capital against what they saw as an aggression but I think a real fear about what can come next for this country. I mean, the social fabric of this country of 6 million has been really torn apart, and it's been worsened also by foreign meddling in the country.

KELLY: Foreign meddling meaning what? What's going on?

WEHREY: This has been a longstanding feature of Libya. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt had been backing General Khalifa Haftar - giving him weapons, conducting airstrikes. And the Tripoli forces have turned to Turkey, who's now providing weapons as well. And so it's a very cynical game, and Libyans are just paying the price for it.

KELLY: And meanwhile, back to the migrants who, of course - as we mentioned, there's at least 44 who died in this latest attack.

WEHREY: Right.

KELLY: They're trying to get to Europe. What now? I mean, as you mentioned, the EU has this policy of turning them around, and they end up back in these detention centers and then presumably - what? - trying to make the trip again.

WEHREY: They have. I mean, they've been often forced into labor. Some try to make the trip again. Some are repatriated back to their home countries. My hope is that this awful tragedy will spur the international community - the U.N. and especially the Europeans - to revise that policy and adopt a more humane approach in Libya.

KELLY: That is Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment. His book is "The Burning Shores: Inside The Battle For The New Libya." Frederic Wehrey, thank you.

WEHREY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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