Libya Tribune

By Sally Hayden

The European Union is funding the Libyan coast guard to keep migrants out of Europe and detain them in a failed state—and that leaves them at the mercy of militias and human traffickers.

PART TWO

While the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have been pointedly critical, UNHCR and IOM regularly thank the EU for funding through their social media accounts, without mentioning that the EU plays a central role in sending refugees and migrants to detention centers in the first place.

One UNHCR tweet on July 30 read: “Friendship means no-one is left behind. UNHCR is grateful for the support provided by the EU #AfricaTrustFund for the humanitarian evacuations of refugees from Libya … #FriendshipDay.”

This type of selective messaging clashes harshly with the organization’s most regularly used hashtag, #WithRefugees, according to observers. It’s also one of the reasons UNHCR shouldn’t be representing the views of refugees, aid officials and detainees say.

It is clear the U.N. is operating in difficult conditions. UNHCR still lacks a mandate in Libya, despite the U.N.’s role legitimizing and supporting the Tripoli-based government.

Jeff Crisp, a former UNHCR official who regularly tweets criticisms of the agency, said Libya is probably the “worst case scenario” for UNHCR to operate in.

According to Crisp, the problems include: “dependence on EU funding and inability to change EU policy; a government that is supported by both the UN and EU; weak government institutions that are closely linked to militias; desperate refugees who don’t understand why UNHCR can’t do more for them; irregular and limited access to the refugees; concerns over staff safety and security,” he wrote in an email.

Aid workers, however, accuse U.N. spokespeople of misrepresenting the extent of their access to other aid agencies and donors in reports.

An aid official said the U.N. is misleading donors, including the EU itself, about providing regular assistance in detention centers, including Zintan.

One aid official, who has visited multiple detention centers, said it is clear that tasks the U.N. agencies claim to be carrying out either aren’t happening or aren’t particularly effective.

The aid official said the U.N. agencies are misleading donors, including the EU itself, about providing regular assistance in detention centers, including Zintan.

The official also said the U.N. agencies have lied about engaging with refugees and migrants to identify their needs and priorities. 

These false reports are being passed to donors, the aid official said: “They’re lying, they’re using fake numbers, they’re using medical teams that are not even there.”

Another said it was clear the U.N. is “totally overwhelmed” with the situation, yet it has management who are always “on the defensive.” 

UNHCR did not specifically respond to this point, but in a written statement to Foreign Policy, IOM said it is “present across the east, west, and south of Libya.

Our teams conduct regular visits to detention centers, delivering emergency medical assistance and core relief items, and coordinating voluntary humanitarian return assistance to those wishing to go home. 

Suggesting that the organization is falsifying reports is utterly preposterous.”

It’s a defense that does not ring true to those working with migrants in detention.

More than anything, aid workers who spoke to Foreign Policy say they’re frustrated that U.N. agencies are unwilling to admit the limitations to what they can do, something they say is directly leading to extreme suffering and uncounted numbers of deaths. 

In almost every country where there is an emergency there are always complaints, there are always issues and critics, but what we see in Libya is a complete mess,” said one aid official.

Here what we are missing is willingness to talk about it. People are scared.” 

If UNHCR cannot protect people in Libya, they have to say it,” said another.

They are also frustrated that the U.N. does not use the leverage it has with the GNA to demand an overhaul of the migrant detention system, given the U.N. is giving the government legitimacy by supporting it.

This is particularly true now when the GNA is at war with Gen. Haftar. “It’s very unfortunate that the U.N. did not take advantage of this,” one aid worker said.

Instead of the intergovernmental bodies admitting their shortcomings, an aid official who has attended high-level meetings said they had seen UNHCR and IOM representatives defending Libyan militias associated with the GNA

Instead of the intergovernmental bodies admitting their shortcomings, an aid official who has attended high-level meetings said they had seen UNHCR and IOM representatives defending Libyan militias associated with the GNA.

When the issue of Zintan popped up and people were talking about the cases that were being reported, in at least two or three meetings I attended [UNHCR’s] chief of mission was just defending what the [Department for Combating Illegal Migration] and these militias were doing.”

The aid official also said an IOM representative dismissed the reports of deaths in Zintan as “fake news,” and both IOM and UNHCR staff have said refugees and migrants have many reasons to exaggerate things.

Such denial and dismissal is common. Indeed, a high-ranking official at a U.N. agency told me in a 2018 email not to “take at face value” what I hear from detainees in Libya “even they are in a dire situation.” These agencies are actively “blocking” the truth from coming out, the aid official said.

In a statement to Foreign Policy, the IOM spokesperson Leonard Doyle said the organization has always been vocal about the “grim” conditions in detention centers in Libya.

We have, jointly with UNHCR publicly called upon the European Union and African Union to adopt a new approach to the situation,” he said.

Doyle said donor funding had allowed IOM to return more than 47,000 people to their countries of origin since 2015, and that the organization continues to provide “much needed assistance” to thousands of migrants and displaced people inside Libya.

The suffering of migrants in Libya is intolerable and is of great concern to the organization. Any statements attributed to IOM and IOM staff suggesting otherwise are inconsistent with the organization’s core principles,” he said.

Foreign Policy is in regular contact with dozens of refugees and migrants currently in Libyan detention centers who have repeatedly argued over the past year that the U.N. is not properly representing them. 

The UNHCR listens to the soldiers and not us,” one detainee said. “UNHCR does not work for us—it is a criminal organization,” said another.

The UNHCR listens to the soldiers and not us,” one detainee said. “UNHCR does not work for us—it is a criminal organization,” said another.

 A third accused U.N. staff of treating detainees like “animals” and ignoring them.

This became particularly clear when fighting broke out in Tripoli in August 2018, and Foreign Policy received evidence that less than one-quarter of people from refugee-producing countries in some besieged detention centers had actually been registered with UNHCR, despite requesting registration for months.

Officials familiar with the situation in Libya worry there may not be enough checks and balances, because other U.N. agencies are loath to question how UNHCR and IOM are operating.

Both UNHCR and IOM are competing over resources,” said an aid official, but when it comes to questions about their failings, “they are united, because they want to defend themselves as a united front.

There is kind of an informal agreement … a general understanding that [other U.N. agencies] should not stand against UNHCR or against IOM,” the aid official said.

There are different strategies: One is just to ignore, another is to pretend everything is fine, another to say we’ll look into it and do nothing.”

While UNHCR has helped 1,540 refugees leave Libya in 2019, this is only a small percentage of those stuck in a cycle between detention centers, smugglers, and the Libyan coast guard, some of whom have waited years to be considered for evacuation.

 In May alone, nearly as many refugees (1,224) were returned from the Mediterranean Sea and locked up in detention.

On multiple other occasions, UNHCR has released press statements saying they “evacuated” refugees to “safety,” or moved refugees “out of harm’s way,” when the refugees have instead simply been moved between detention centers, placing them in danger once again.

In April, the agency used this terminology when 325 detainees were moved following an attack on the Qasr bin Ghashir detention center to the Zawiya center, which is run by a well-known alleged human trafficker and associated with a militia whose leaders are currently under U.N. sanctions.

In July, bombing survivors from the Tajoura detention center walked through dangerous Tripoli streets themselves for dozens of miles, only for a UNHCR spokesperson to tweet “UNHCR evacuated the survivors to safety” soon afterwards.

In July, bombing survivors from the Tajoura detention center walked through dangerous Tripoli streets themselves for dozens of miles, only for a UNHCR spokesperson to tweet “UNHCR evacuated the survivors to safety” soon afterwards.

 “I can confidently say there is an extreme exaggeration,” said a source who has worked with the U.N. in Libya. “The amount of time and money that we spend on visibility and public relations is more than they are spending on the actual work.”

In an email to Foreign Policy, UNHCR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly said the agency’s press release about Zawiya from April 24 makes it clear that moving refugees and migrants to Zawiya detention center “was the only available option at the time” and said it points out that Libya is a “dangerous and unsuitable place for refugees and migrants” while “calling for their release and evacuation to safety.”

When approached for comment on a list of 11 points raised in this article, Pouilly responded: “Your questions seem to indicate an incomplete understanding of the humanitarian and security situation and the severe constraints UNHCR faces on a daily basis in Libya. …

Our efforts to help vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in Libya is based on a humanitarian imperative—saving lives—which is forcing us to deal with complex realities and sometimes jeopardizes our own staff security.

We take this opportunity to reiterate that we only have restricted access to detention facilities and that we limit ourselves to providing humanitarian assistance to those in need.” 

For refugees and migrants detained in Libya, UNHCR has become a symbol of inaction, an agency whose logo has gone from inspiring feelings of admiration to fostering contempt.

For refugees and migrants still in detention, UNHCR in particular has become a symbol of inaction, an agency whose logo has gone from inspiring feelings of admiration to fostering contempt.

Whenever they do a publicity, the photographer and the commissioner come and take a picture of the logo, and then they write expressive words,” said one man from Darfur, who alleged that detainees have been threatened and beaten by Libyan guards in front of UNHCR staff without the staff doing anything to stop it (UNHCR denies this).

UNHCR are playing us,” said another Darfuri, who says he survived the Tajoura bombing only to be denied help from the U.N. and left sleeping on the streets. Foreign Policy confirmed details of his story with other former Tajoura detainees.

Now, the bombing survivor said he has lost hope in UNHCR and is ready to return to smugglers. “I will try the sea again and again. I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said, adding, “I want the world to know how people are suffering in Libya, because many people die and lose their minds here.”

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Sally Hayden is a freelance journalist focused on migration, human rights, and humanitarian crises. She has written for Al Jazeera, the Irish TimesTime, the Washington PostNewsweek, and others.

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