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.


2. Displacement trends

With the outbreak of the civil war in February 2011, an initial wave of mixed populations fled across the border to Tunisia in search of safety.

This included Libyans who were supporters of Gaddafi or their families fearing reprisals. These groups were relatively small: only around 3,500 Libyans were recorded crossing the border by UNHCR between 20 February and 2 March 2011 (out of an estimated 85,000 people).

A reported 90,000 arrived between April and June 2011, according to the Tunisian government. These groups sought refuge primarily with Tunisian families or relatives rather than in the UN-organised camps established primarily to facilitate the repatriation of third-country nationals.

Points of entry to Tunisia used by Libyans reflected political affiliations, with Gaddafi supporters using the Ras Jedir crossing and settling around Ben Guerdane, and opposition supporters crossing through Dehiba-Wazen into Tataouine (tribal affiliations also played a part in the distribution patterns).

By September 2011, UNHCR estimated that 77% of Libyans who had arrived in Tunisia that year had since returned. This is borne out by this research, with a number of refugees explaining how they had fled the country in 2011 and returned later once the situation had stabilised.

Internal displacement was also a key feature of the armed conflict in 2011, with approximately 500,000 having fled their homes for other areas of the country. Many fled as a result of threats from anti-government armed groups targeting them for their perceived affiliation with or support for Gaddafi and his regime.

Most of this first wave of IDPs sought shelter in urban areas, particularly Misrata and Tripoli in the west of the country, and were able to return home towards the end of 2011, though those with specific Gaddafi affiliations remained fearful of returning to their areas of origin.

By the end of 2011, following Gaddafi’s death, 154,000 Libyans were internally displaced.

2.1 – Forced displacement since 2014

The second conflict has again resulted in large-scale forced displacement of civilians, both across the border into Tunisia and within Libya.

Those who fled across the border in 2014 included people escaping the generalised violence and institutional chaos in the country following the breakdown of the nascent central government.

This group of displaced Libyans also included people fleeing targeted persecution, primarily related to their support for the revolution against the Gaddafi regime, who now found themselves at risk of retaliation as the conflict lines shifted once again.

Many of these families were reportedly moderately well-off (wealthier Libyans reportedly having fled to Europe or Australia instead).

Within Libya, the renewed conflict resulted in a six-fold increase in IDPs, reaching approximately 400,000 people (IDMC, 2015).

Similar to those forced across the border, people displaced internally included those fleeing generalised violence and chaos in their areas of origin, as well as former Gaddafi loyalists or perceived loyalists among the Tawergha, Mashashya, Gualish and Tuareg communities who, having fled initially in 2011, were displaced again in 2014.

Unlike in 2011, many of those internally displaced in 2014 were unable to return home quickly and/or have been displaced again subsequently as the front lines of the conflict have shifted.

Of the 304,000 Libyans internally displaced at the end of 2016, 13% had been displaced in 2011, 5% were displaced between 2012 and 2014 and the remaining 82% were displaced between 2014 and 2016.

New displacements have also continued, though in smaller numbers: interviewees for this research indicated that they had fled Libya as late as 2017; in mid-2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs estimated that approximately 2–3% of the Libyan population was still internally displaced.

2.2 – Data on displacement

Reliable statistics for the number of Libyans displaced across the border to Tunisia are difficult to obtain. Libyans are not recognised or registered as refugees in the country, border crossings are irregularly monitored and Libyans displaced across the border regularly cross back again for short periods.

The Tunisian authorities have provided various figures for the number of Libyans in the country, with the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs estimating between 800,000 and 1.5 million in 2016, but these statistics do not distinguish the reasons for their presence, and are therefore largely unhelpful in determining how many Libyans actually sought refuge from the conflict in Tunisia.

A survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in cooperation with the Tunisian government in late 2015 indicated that over 8,000 Libyans were residing in Tunisia, having fled the conflict.

Research conducted by the World Bank a few months later suggested that, by February 2016, 12,783 Libyans were living in Tunisia, approximately 30% or 3,800 of whom stated that they had moved to Tunisia specifically because of the conflict.

The majority of Libyans involved in that research also indicated that they had been in the country for less than three years at the time (2016), suggesting that most of those who had fled across the border in 2011 had returned home – at least temporarily.

There has as yet been no fully comprehensive assessment or analysis of displacement across the border, and therefore current analysis is only indicative.

While there is more data available on the scale of internal displacement within Libya, it is also incomplete.

Many of those internally displaced have moved multiple times since their initial period of displacement, and due to the nature of their situation – often characterised by having fled persecution or targeted violence – many IDPs are reluctant to be identified, preferring to live anonymously in urban areas.

Access to these populations, particularly in the south and other areas of active conflict, has been extremely limited, making it difficult for international humanitarian organisations to conduct assessments.

Collecting data is also complicated by the shifting patterns of displacement and return, whereby some IDPs have returned to areas of origin but have been unable to fully resettle in their homes or neighbourhoods due to destruction of property, continued fighting or the presence of unexploded ordnance.

Internal displacement has become a permanent feature of life for many in Libya.

3. Concerns, threats and risks during displacement in Libya and Tunisia

3.1 Targeted threats of violence in displacement

One of the most pressing concerns for many displaced Libyans is that threats of violence or persecution that originally forced them to flee their homes have followed them into displacement.

A number of those displaced to Tunisia interviewed for this research explained that they had personally received direct threats from individuals or militia forces via social media, in some cases had received threatening calls to their mobile phones and in at least one instance had been subject to attack on the streets of Tunis.

In most cases, these individuals were being targeted for their perceived or actual opposition to the various ideologies or political agendas of militia or other armed groups inside Libya.

One interviewee asserted that ‘Tunis is a meeting place for militia leaders’, and that, although they felt safer than in Libya, the threat was still very real.

Similarly, for many IDPs who fled targeted violence or persecution, there is a genuine fear that threats to their personal safety will increase if their identities become known in their place of displacement.

Those militias threaten people [in Tunisia] and it is not difficult for them to do so given that they command power, money and authority. Some of them come here on a regular basis.

In 2013 or 2014, we heard of Libyans who had escaped to Tunisia but a militia came to Tunis, drugged them and put them in an ambulance and took them back to Libya so they would not be suspected at the border.

Another method used is to threaten to hurt a family member in Libya to force certain activists to come back to Libya. You see, in Tunisia, it is not very difficult for them to hurt you. They don’t need to take you back to Libya; they can hurt you here’.

3.2 – Increasing poverty and depleted assets

The socio-economic situation of Libyans who fled to Tunisia varies, as evidenced in the diverse experiences of the individuals interviewed for this research.

Many of those who fled across the border were moderately wealthy intellectuals or professionals, with access to assets that they were able to use to sustain themselves during the initial period of their displacement.

World Bank research on the demographics of Libyans living in Tunisia in 2017 found that the population was primarily middle class, with household spending of 38,800 Tunisian Dinars annually (roughly $50 per day), which is two to three times the spending power of the average Tunisian household.

Many of those who fled across the border were state employees who were still receiving regular salary payments even after having left the country. Some return for short periods to check on or access their remaining assets and family in their areas of origin.

It is also evident that, as displacement has become protracted, so the socio-economic situation of some of those displaced across the border has deteriorated, with implications for their physical safety.

Several interviewees told HPG researchers that they had exhausted the finances they had in reserve, that their property, business or other assets in Libya had been looted or destroyed and that they had struggled to access regular employment in Tunisia.

Those who did have savings in Libyan banks have seen their value eroded by the rapid decline in the value of the Libyan Dinar, and have in any case faced restrictions on accessing these funds due to the imposition of a cap on withdrawals put in place by the Libyan Central Bank to try to address the liquidity crisis.

There are also concerns that the initial surge of solidarity among relatives, friends and society in general in Tunisia has begun to wane.

The situation of vulnerable Libyans in Tunisia is compounded by the relative lack of assistance available to them in accessing the full range of their human rights.

In terms of education, an IOM survey published in 2016 found that 25% of school-age Libyan children were not enrolled due to administrative and financial challenges, and 80% of those who were enrolled in schools, including from vulnerable families, were not receiving any assistance.

Interviewees told HPG researchers that their children faced challenges navigating the Tunisian education system. The IOM survey also found that 80% of Libyans interviewed in late 2015 had not accessed healthcare or benefitted from social assistance programmes, aside from ad hoc civil society interventions.

Although Libyans have for decades crossed into Tunisia to take advantage of the better-quality health services there, private clinics in the country reportedly no longer accept patients with chronic or serious needs, and displaced Libyans can only access healthcare services through private insurance – which many displaced Libyans cannot afford.

At least one interviewee told HPG researchers that she had been forced to return to Libya, at great personal risk, in order to access urgent medical care for her child, which she could not afford in Tunisia.

The principal challenge Libyans displaced to Tunisia highlighted to HPG researchers was their lack of access to livelihoods.

Several noted that they had been unable to find any work or knew of others who had held professional positions in Libya but were now forced to undertake casual labour, domestic work and even sex work, with all its attendant risks.

Research by IOM in late 2015 found that many Libyans are struggling to access the regular labour market, with 48% of those interviewed stating that the main barrier they faced in this regard was the lack of a residence permit from the Tunisian authorities.

The socio-economic situation of IDPs inside Libya is also precarious. According to the 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) published by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an estimated 97,000 of the 194,000 Libyans currently internally displaced are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The majority of these vulnerable IDPs are believed to be in urban areas, in private rented accommodation, with family or friends

or in informal settlements established in abandoned factories, public buildings, construction sites or accommodation previously occupied by foreign and migrant workers.

Those living in informal settlements are believed to have the most acute needs, with limited access to services, cramped and inadequate shelter and attendant protection and health risks.

Many IDPs also lost identity documentation, including passports, during their flight and have been unable to renew documents without returning to their area of origin – a risk that many are not able to accept even though lack of ID is a constraint on their ability to access services and assistance, including health services.

The Tawergha – an ethnic tribe from southern Libya – are the largest group of vulnerable IDPs, at an estimated 40,000 people, many of whom are living in dire conditions in informal settlements.

They were displaced from their homes in 2011 by militia forces from nearby Misrata, who accused them of supporting the Gaddafi regime.

They have continued to face violent reprisals, including forced evictions from informal settlements: in August 2018, around 2,000 Tawerghas were forcibly evicted by a local militia from an informal settlement in Tariq-al-Matar in Tripoli, where they had been living since 2011.

They also face major challenges to their return. More worrying still is the situation of IDPs in the south of the country, where the UN and other international humanitarian actors have little or no access and are therefore unable to determine the exact scale and nature of internal displacement.

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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