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.


The protection crisis in Libya

A- Libya’s protection crisis – the proximate drivers of forced displacement

The conflict in Libya has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes within Libya and across the border with Tunisia since 2011.

The following analysis summarises some of the key protection threats emanating from the conflict: ‘Now, for many, every day is a personal emergency’.

1. Armed violence and crime

Since 2011 there has been a pattern of both targeted and indiscriminate attacks against civilians perpetrated by all the parties to the conflict.

The parties include the Libyan National Army (LNA), groups under the coalition Operation Dignity, other militia groups, such as Libya Dawn (including the Libya Shield Forces, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and Janzour Knights Brigade), armed groups in western Libya opposed to Libya Dawn (including Al-Sawa’iq, Al-Qa’qa’a, Al-Madani).

In addition to tribal groups in the south (including Tabu, Al-Qadhadhifa, Al-Megharba and Awlad Suleiman) often associated with either Operation Dignity or Libya Dawn.

Targeted attacks on individual civilians and civilian infrastructure have also been a key tactic of Islamist extremist groups including ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia.

These attacks have included kidnapping, detention, unlawful killings and injury and the appropriation of property of individuals perceived to be affiliated with an opposing party to the conflict, human rights

defenders/activists, judges and prosecutors and members of some religious groups, such as Coptic Christians.

The persecution of specific groups began early in 2011 when forces aligned with Gaddafi or affiliated armed groups targeted those believed to be involved in the uprising against his regime (often referred to as the ‘February’ people).

As the tide of the conflict turned, forces that had fought against the old regime began to target Gaddafi’s supporters (often referred to as the ‘September’ people). This cycle of targeted violence and reprisals has become a feature of the conflict.

Journalists and civil society activists, particularly women’s rights activists, are specifically targeted by Islamist extremist groups, which consider them a ‘corrupting force’ in Libyan society, and by Libyan militia forces or armed groups which believe they are working against their interests.

Under the Gaddafi regime there had essentially been no independent media, and its fall facilitated the development of a nascent free press. Paradoxically, however, this has led to attacks on journalists as conflict parties seek to control the public narrative of the war and their role in it: since 2011, 13 journalists have been killed in Libya, and another four are missing, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The country was ranked 162nd out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index. In this climate, many journalists have been forced to flee the country.

Libyan peace and human rights activists interviewed for this research report having been targeted or threatened by local militias, resulting in serious psychological as well as physical trauma.

One women’s rights activist reported to the research team how she was abused on social media, denounced as a ‘non-believer’ and threatened. Another described being kidnapped and beaten by local militia in Tripoli.

Several activists explained that they had fled the country to reduce the risks to their families as well as themselves.

Targeted attacks are not limited to those with opposing political views. As the war economy and general lawlessness have thrived, so individuals are increasingly being targeted for kidnapping for extortion – a lucrative source of income for conflict parties – or even to exact personal revenge.

One interviewee explained how their brother – a wealthy local businessman – had returned for a visit to Libya having previously fled to Tunisia, only to be kidnapped for ransom and killed.

Indiscriminate attacks have included the targeting of entire neighbourhoods with imprecise or wide-area weaponry, such as rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and restrictions on the movement of civilians and essential supplies.

In March 2017, for example, the LNA lifted a two-month siege of an apartment complex in the Ganfouda neighbourhood in Benghazi where the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) were holding out.

The siege involved cutting off all supplies including food and medicines to the area, and restrictions on freedom of movement. The prolonged battle for Derna has involved the LNA tightening its siege on the city restricting access to food, fuel and medical supplies, and air strikes that have reportedly resulted in civilian deaths and injuries.

In Tripoli, armed clashes between rival militia in August and September 2018 resulted in shortages of medical supplies, attacks on and looting of medical personnel and ambulances, damage to water networks and shells falling ‘on wide swaths of the city’.

The armed 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 and if they may be the target of an attack.

As one interviewee explained: ‘if you had asked me three years ago then I would have said that I was personally targeted but nowadays it is different, it is random and there is no system or methodology to danger’.

The vast majority of Libyan refugees interviewed for this research explained that they and people they knew did not feel safe in Libya irrespective of their political, religious, social, ethnic or other affiliations.

These fears are compounded by widespread impunity. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), ‘key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional in most parts of the country, virtually guaranteeing domestic impunity’.

Individuals responsible for the gravest violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have not been held to account: three arrest warrants have been issued by the ICC on charges pertaining to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but no one has yet been brought before the court.

All the September people do not feel safe and it is easy to understand why but now it is no longer just the September people who feel unsafe. Even the people who supported the February Revolution are affected. In Benghazi, Salwa Bughaighis who was aligned with the Revolution from the beginning was killed by Daesh (?). So how can anyone feel safe?’.

2. Sexual and gender-based violence

Sexual and gender-based violence – against women and men – has been a key feature of the conflict. Reports of rape and other sexual violence against women by Gaddafi loyalists were reported in 2011, but information has emerged more recently indicating a cyclical pattern of such violence.

While sexual violence was prevalent in Libya before 2011, the high levels of violence and almost total impunity have greatly exacerbated the threat.

A 2016 report by the US State Department, for example, found that, over the preceding 18 months, ISIS had abducted at least 63 women and forced them into sex slavery for its fighters.

Libyan armed groups, including the LNA and other militia linked to Libya Dawn, have also engaged in sexual violence against women . Sexual violence against women’s rights activists is presumably intended to have a chilling effect on efforts to speak up for women’s rights.

Attacks seem to coincide with increasingly negative social attitudes towards women, as evidenced in decrees by religious leaders and restrictions on women’s freedom of movement and right to work.

One interviewee told HPG researchers ‘people will believe anything negative said about women. This is the norm. You see people regard women activists as the corrupt apple that will corrupt their girls’. There is also evidence of rape and other sexual abuse of males – Libyans and third- country nationals – being held in detention by armed groups.

Research reported in Le Monde and The Guardian newspapers in November 2017 described the use of sexual violence against males ‘to humiliate and neutralise opponents’, with inmates forced to perpetrate abuse against each other, often filmed by their captors.

General lawlessness, the collapse of judicial structures, lack of access to specialist survivor services and the social and cultural stigma attached to sexual abuse all discourage survivors from reporting incidents.

Women subject to sexual violence by terrorist or extremist groups in Libya, including ISIS, have been detained by the Libyan authorities as ‘accomplices’, rather than treated as survivors.

3. Enforced disappearances

Since 2011, both government forces and militia acting outside government control have kidnapped and ‘disappeared’ an unknown number of individuals, with little effort made to investigate or punish the perpetrators or prevent incidents from happening.

Individuals at particular risk include activists and critics of the different governments/de facto authorities across the country.

As the SRSG reported in September 2018, ‘in various cities and towns, civilians are routinely grabbed off the streets or from their homes without legal process sometimes simply for holding the wrong opinion.

Some reappear in prisons, where they are tortured. The bodies of others are recovered in the streets. Others simply join the long list

of missing and disappeared since 2011’.

4. Crossing the Mediterranean

Such is the dire situation in Libya, including for displaced populations, an increasing number of Libyans have attempted to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.

Despite an overall fall in the number of migrants making the crossing since 2016, the number of Libyans reported arriving on the Italian coast increased from 887 in 2016 to 1,234 in 2017 and the number in the first eight months of 2018 was 428.

Those interviewed by UNHCR and partners indicated the continuing armed conflict and its affects on access to services, livelihoods, etc. as the key reasons for attempting this perilous journey.

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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