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.


3.3 – Diminishing resilience and negative coping strategies

Interviewees also highlighted that the protracted nature of the conflict and resulting prolonged displacement were undermining the resilience of many of Libya’s displaced people.

Several interviewees described their own or others’ increasingly desperate circumstances, explaining that, with no source of income or material support in Tunisia, some had been forced to return to Libya and accept the serious risks that involved.

IDPs in Libya have similarly had to rely on their own capacities and resources – or those of their communities or relatives – to sustain themselves during their displacement.

An estimated 70% of IDPs currently live in self-paid rented accommodation, suggesting a high degree of self-sufficiency.

However, data collected by humanitarian organisations indicates that, as the conflict has become more protracted, the resilience of some Libyans, including IDPs, to withstand the impact of the conflict has deteriorated.

In addition to increasing reports of negative coping strategies including reducing household expenditure on food, reducing meal sizes and nutritional content, begging and socially degrading, high-risk and illegal income-generating activities, including survival sex.

This gradual deterioration of individual resilience and growing reliance on negative coping strategies is likely to have serious psychological consequences.

With the depletion of assets, insecure or inadequate shelter, a lack of medical care and other assistance, insecure legal status, the continuing threat of violence and the absence of a credible opportunity for return are likely taking their toll on the mental health of displaced Libyans.

The negative change in social and economic circumstances has been acute in some cases: as one refugee highlighted, ‘imagine yourself as a working person, a productive person and suddenly you are nothing’.

The need for gainful employment was highlighted repeatedly by the refugees interviewed for this study, and is clearly linked to a desire for some semblance of normality and stability, and a need to feel that they have escaped the violence and can sustain themselves with some degree of dignity until returning home becomes possible.

3.4 Insecure legal status in Tunisia

The Tunisian authorities have continued to maintain their stance that Libyans who fled the conflict are welcome as ‘guests’, but do not recognise them as refugees or asylum-seekers.

Despite having ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, this is a long-held position, reportedly intended, at least in part, to avoid confrontation with the Libyan government.

In June 2011, following the first wave of displacement across the border, UNHCR signed an Accord de Siège cooperation agreement with the Tunisian government and the Tunisian government signalled to UNHCR its willingness to adopt a national asylum law, though this has yet to be done.

In the absence of national asylum legislation, UNHCR has been the sole actor undertaking refugee status determination in Tunisia, including for Libyans whose protection needs cannot be met in Tunisia.

Currently, TRCS is UNHCR’s frontline partner responsible for individual case management of asylum applications.

As a result of the 1974 Union of Djerba between the Libyan and Tunisian governments, Libyan nationals are allowed entry into Tunisia without a visa for up to 90 days (Chauzal and Zavagli, 2016).

The agreement also grants certain privileges to Libyan nationals in Tunisia, including the right to work and establish businesses (Chauzal and Zavagli, 2016).

However, Article 9 of the Tunisian law regulating the status of foreigners requires all Libyans in Tunisia staying for more than three continuous months or six non-continuous months within a single year ‘to obtain a visa and temporary residency permit’.

Article 23 of the same law provides for imprisonment of up to one year for failure to apply for a residency permit within the legally required period.

With limited options to regularise their stay in Tunisia, displaced Libyans are therefore forced to cross the border back into Libya and return again to renew their temporary visa (IOM, 2016).

Over 77% of respondents in an IOM survey in late 2015 indicated that they had overstayed their initial six-month visa for Tunisia.

Crossing back into Libya is simply not possible for all Libyans and, having overstayed their tourist visas, some are now at risk of punishment and deportation under domestic law, though the authorities have not, to date, strictly applied these regulations.

The Tunisian government’s narrative of offering ‘hospitality’ to Libyans seeking refuge from the conflict effectively denies their right to asylum.

Some Libyan refugees interviewed by HPG researchers have found themselves unable to leave the country due to lack of funds and the

risks related to returning home, but have no legal permission to stay in Tunisia in the long term.

This may increase their vulnerability to extortion or demands for bribes when stopped or questioned by security personnel, or to scams by criminals offering to help regularise their status.

Jaidi and Tashani (2015) also highlight that many Libyan refugees fear approaching the Libyan Embassy in Tunis for assistance due to concerns that their documents may be confiscated and they may be unable to renew their papers.

At the end of 2015 the Tunisian authorities stated that Libyan passports issued before 2007 would no longer be recognised.

Although passports can be renewed at the Libyan Embassy in Tunis, they must then be validated by the GNA in Libya. The risks involved in returning mean that some Libyans – particularly those unable to return to Libya due to targeted persecution – have been left with no legally valid ID.

3.5 Limited prospects for durable solutions

The majority of interviewees for this research held out no hope of returning to Libya in the near future, citing continuing instability in the country, ongoing high levels of violence and criminality and the prevalence of the war economy as key factors preventing their safe return.

It was also evident that many of those interviewed feared for their lives if they returned due to targeted threats and persecution.

Local integration in Tunisia was not a permanent option for some, both because of the practical, legal and other challenges involved, and because of their ongoing desire, despite everything they had experienced at home, to return to Libya. IOM (2016) reported that over 70% of Libyans it interviewed in late 2015 wanted to return home as soon as the political and security situation allowed.

In the survey, IOM also noted increasing anti-Libyan sentiment in Tunisia resulting from the lack of a clear government position on the need for protection of vulnerable Libyans, public statements over-estimating the number of Libyans who had sought refuge in the country and the negative impact of the Libyan conflict in terms of security and instability inside Tunisia.

That aside, local host communities appear to have remained generous in their understanding of the plight of vulnerable Libyans, and most Libyans interviewed for the IOM survey and in HPG’s research felt that they were being adequately tolerated, and in some cases welcomed in local host communities .

Several Libyan interviewees told the researchers that they had considered seeking resettlement elsewhere in the Middle East or in Europe, not through formal asylum procedures, but rather through seeking employment via personal contacts, but they were not hopeful that this would be possible.

None of those interviewed by HPG who had faced or continued to face persecution from conflict parties in Libya reported that they had identified themselves to UNHCR or been referred to the agency as individuals in need of international protection.

It was unclear whether this was because they had no faith in this formal process, whether they did not understand that this was an avenue they could pursue or whether it was linked to the Tunisian government’s long-standing policy against local integration.

The IOM survey in 2016 similarly found that few displaced Libyans had approached UNHCR to make asylum claims, and speculated that this was either because they were aware that their claims were unlikely to be successful or out of a sense of pride that prevented them from asking for assistance.

The prospects for durable solutions for many of Libya’s IDPs are similarly complex. A large number of IDPs – an estimated 445,000 – did return between 2016 and the end of 2018, with approximately 84% being able to return to their original properties.

But many of these returnees have since faced problems relating to continued insecurity (targeted or indiscriminate) in their areas of origin, threats of eviction and poor or damaged service infrastructure: an estimated 116,000 are in need of shelter, food, health, water and sanitation assistance.

Others are unable to return due to ongoing violence in their areas of origin, the destruction of homes and basic infrastructure, the appropriation of land and assets, widespread contamination of unexploded ordnance and, in the case of the Tawerghas, several other ethnic groups and individuals affiliated to the former regime, due to continuing persecution or targeted threats.

Concerns related to housing, land and property rights remain a key obstacle to durable solutions for many displaced Libyans – both those within Libya and those across the border.

A number of the Libyans interviewed for this research indicated that their homes, property and other assets in Libya had been looted, appropriated or destroyed, either immediately before their flight or during their displacement.

The ability to recoup assets lost or obtain compensation is made more complex by two practical factors: first, the fact that many displaced people have lost identity documents means that they cannot prove ownership of certain assets; and second, some of the displaced obtained their land and property through a sweeping ‘redistribution’ of property imposed by the Gaddafi government in the 1970s in a bid to curry favour and reward regime loyalists.

The legislation that allowed for this redistribution has since been rescinded by the Tripoli-based government, but it remains unclear how valid or enforceable that action is, or how such cases can be resolved.

For example, the Tawerghas were given property appropriated by the Gaddafi regime, but had this property and land appropriated from them in turn during the current conflict.

The resolution of their ownership of land in the south remains a key obstacle to return (UNHCR, 2013b). Inability to access former homes, cultivate former lands or access property assets impacts not just on the ability to return home: it also prevents displaced people from drawing on these assets to sustain themselves during displacement.



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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