Risks, Responses and Border Dynamics

HPG Working Paper

This Working Paper focuses on the situation of Libyans displaced since 2011, both within Libya itself and in Tunisia.


Executive summary

The escalating political and security crisis in Libya has led to the breakdown of its state institutions and widespread violence and crime.

According to the UN, hundreds of thousands of people have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result, either within Libya or across the border into Tunisia.

Many are acutely vulnerable to threats from targeted or generalised violence and face challenges accessing public services and adequate shelter.

Protection and assistance for these vulnerable people has been inadequate.

This Working Paper focuses on the situation of Libyans displaced since 2011, both within Libya itself and in Tunisia.

While the legal frameworks governing their rights during displacement differ, many of the drivers of their displacement are shared, and they face similar threats to their physical, legal and material safety.

The paper explores these threats, and the strategies displaced Libyans have used to protect themselves. It considers the local capacities and social capital displaced individuals have drawn on to mitigate threats, including in relation to family, tribal or other affiliations.

Displacement has been driven by a range of serious protection threats, including, targeted and indiscriminate attacks – including sexual and gender-based violence – against civilians by all the parties to the conflict.

Targeted attacks against civilians have included kidnapping, detention, unlawful killings and injury and the appropriation of property of individuals perceived to be affiliated with an opposing party, human rights activists, judges and prosecutors and members of particular religious groups.

The conflict is extremely dynamic, with frontlines shifting and conflict parties fragmenting, restructuring and changing allegiances. This, together with the pervasive war economy and rising crime, means that civilians cannot know when or if they may be the target of an attack.

Some Libyans also face serious protection threats during their displacement in Tunisia, including the continued risk of targeted attacks, increasing poverty and depleted assets, insecure legal status and limited access to livelihoods.

The relatively limited access to assistance and support inside Tunisia compounds their situation. In Libya, an estimated 97,000 of the 194,000 Libyans internally displaced in 2018 were in need of humanitarian assistance.

The majority of these vulnerable internally displaced persons (IDPs) are believed to be in urban areas, in private rented accommodation, with family or friends or in informal settlements.

Displaced Libyans have adopted various strategies, some of them high-risk, to try to cope with and mitigate the threats they face.

Flight, whether internally or to Tunisia, has been the main response, but beyond that displaced Libyans have made considered ‘choices’ about where to seek refuge, who can offer them some measure of protection and how they can best use their capacities and assets to sustain themselves during displacement.

Most interviewees for this research explained that they had deliberately chosen Tunisia, and particularly Tunis, because the border with Tunisia is relatively close and accessible and the Tunisian government has a visa-free entry policy for Libyans. Tunisia’s more stable security environment, relatively liberal social environment and family and cultural ties were other factors in the decision.

Within Libya, many people displaced from their homes have moved relatively short distances, both because they want to return home as soon as the situation allows, but also to avoid the security risks involved in moving significant distances across the country.

Many interviewees highlighted their reliance on family or tribal associations as a key source of protection and support.

Close family members provided shelter and assistance and immediate family were, many felt, the only ones they could rely on or trust to provide the kind of long-term emotional support they needed to recover from their ordeal.

Several activists explained that they had fled Libya in part to prevent armed groups from retaliating against their relatives.

Capitalising on periods of relative stability or lulls in fighting, people also moved back and forth across the border with Tunisia to access certain services, including medical care, to access savings, property or business assets and to check on relatives.

This did not mean that they felt it was safe for them to return permanently.

A number of interviewees, including peace and women’s rights activists, highlighted how they had adjusted their behaviour while in displacement by adopting a much lower political, social or social media profile.

The Tunisian government has provided some support in allowing displaced Libyans to cross the border Protection of displaced Libyans: risks, responses and border dynamics and has not as yet undertaken action against those overstaying their short-term visas. But support inside Tunisia from the government has been limited and it does not have capacity to offer displaced Libyans much more than political refuge.

The response of the Libyan government to the protection and assistance needs of displaced people appears to have been ineffective and inadequate.

The internationally recognised Libyan government – the Government of National Accord (GNA) – has yet to put in place a coherent strategy to address the immediate and longer-term needs of displaced Libyans, and there is no comprehensive national legal or policy framework to protect or assist Libyan IDPs.

The response of international humanitarian organisations to the needs of Libya’s displaced people has not been optimal.

Although UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assistance programmes are available to the most vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers, including Libyans, few displaced Libyans interviewed for this study had sought this assistance or indicated that they were aware of it.

International humanitarian organisations trying to respond to the needs of displaced people inside Libya face major challenges from insecurity, and the existence of competing centres of authority in different parts of the country has complicated the registration and monitoring of aid projects.

The Protection Working Group of the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) has developed a protection strategy, but some stakeholders interviewed for this research expressed concern at what they saw as a lack

of in-depth understanding of the cultural, tribal, social and religious context, and the role these factors play in the protection of Libyan civilians.

Donor support has been inadequate: the international humanitarian appeal for 2018 received only $82 million or 26% of requested funds.

Displaced Libyans have faced a range of serious threats to their safety, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

While the international humanitarian response has been severely constrained by insecurity, inadequate funding, government policies and international politics, increased efforts to understand the complex array of social, tribal, ethnic, religious and other dimensions of the conflict, how these relate to the protection threats Libyans face and how Libyans have sought to deal with or mitigate those threats is critical to understanding how best to support these populations with the limited financial resources and political support available.

to be continued



Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy is an Interim Senior Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG).

Ghada Al-Bayati is an independent consultant.

Victoria Metcalfe-Hough is a Research Associate with ODI and independent consultant.

Sarah Adamczyk is a Research Fellow with HPG.


The Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) is one of the world’s leading teams of independent researchers and communications professionals working on humanitarian issues. It is dedicated to improving humanitarian policy and practice through a combination of high-quality analysis, dialogue and debate.



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