For more than two months, thousands of refugees stranded in Libya have been protesting on UNHCR’s doorstep in Tripoli, demanding respect for their human rights and basic dignity.
Some 3,000 migrants and refugees have spent the last couple of months camped out on the streets of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, staging an open-ended protest outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to denounce the inhumane conditions they face in Libya, and claim protection and safety.
The sit-in kicked off at the beginning of October after the Libyan authorities conducted a brutal crackdown on migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in the western neighborhood of Gargaresh, near Tripoli. Security forces arrested more than 5,000 people, including many recognized as refugees by the UN refugee agency, in what the Libyan administration described as a large-scale security campaign against illegal migration and drug trafficking.
The sit-in kicked off at the beginning of October after the Libyan authorities conducted a brutal crackdown on migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.
Unarmed migrants were harassed in their homes, beaten, and shot during the operation. They were then rounded up over several days and sent to detention centers in Tripoli and surrounding towns.
Among the demonstrators are many of those who survived the October raids. Others are survivors of violent pushbacks to Libya while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and those who suffered torture, arbitrary detention, persecution, and extortion before fleeing detention centers.
Such a demonstration is unprecedented. After seeing no change in spite of all advocacy efforts by human rights activists and international humanitarian organizations, the gathered migrants— who are of different nationalities from Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly Eritreans, Somalis, Ethiopians, and Sudanese— formed a self-organized assembly.
They nominated their own spokespeople to advocate for all of them and inform the public through social media by posting photos and videos, explaining the dire situation of men, women and children refugees in the North African country.
Through the Twitter account “Refugees in Libya,” the group has spoken up about their unacceptable living conditions.
Sleeping in a makeshift encampment, the protesters are in a poor, degrading state. In many cases, these are people with bodies scared with injuries endured under torture from traffickers. They are affected by severe malnutrition with no proper food. And although they raise money among themselves, it is not enough.
They are also sick with tuberculosis and other diseases that spread in the overcrowded, unsanitary detention camps they were held in. There are no public toilets available to them. And many of the refugees are in desperate need of medical aid. Pregnant women and girls have been giving birth at the encampment since public hospitals almost systematically deny migrants access to healthcare.
They are also sick with tuberculosis and other diseases that spread in the overcrowded, unsanitary detention camps they were held in.
“People are going hungry and freezing. They are forced to urinate and s**t wherever they can in the open air,” David Yambio, from South Sudan, one of the coordinators of the Refugees in Libya group and among the people who have been staying outside the UNHCR center, told Inside Arabia. He said there have been routine incidents of harm and abuse towards migrants from the local community as a result of the sit-in camp in the area.
“We feel like we’ve been abandoned, we’re not recognized as humans, our rights aren’t respected nor protected,” the refugee activist complained. “We created this group [Refugees in Libya] to raise our voices because we knew we had no other weapon to use.”
The protesters are demanding an end to the violence and immediate evacuation to safe countries. They are also calling on the Italian authorities and EU member states who are directing funds to Libya to make sure the forcible deportation to Libyan migrant detention facilities stops and to press for the closure of these facilities and the release of detainees.
By camping in front of a community center run by UNHCR, the migrants are hoping to be protected from further raids as they fear ending up in detention. Several of them have papers from the UN agency proving they have refugee status.
But as days and weeks have gone by, the scores of refugees demanding their legitimate rights have found closed doors from the UNHCR’s side. They are losing trust in the very people who are responsible for protecting them across borders.
The refugee agency temporarily suspended the community center’s aid operations for security reasons following the October crackdown. Although, it provides some limited aid to migrants elsewhere in the capital. The UNHCR is caught between restrictions imposed on it by Libyan authorities and the lack of will from Europe to find real solutions. Moreover, the agency has not engaged cooperatively with the people camped out in front of its premises to work towards possible resolutions or alternatives.
Violence erupted outside the agency’s head office in Tripoli on November 7 amid tensions with migrants demanding urgent aid and a quick departure from Libya. The group of refugee activists blamed the UNHCR staff and its security guards for the confrontations and slammed them for discriminating against African refugees, who were stopped from accessing the registration center, even as they allowed refugees of Syrian nationality to enter.
The mission chief of the Libyan agency, Jean-Paul Cavalier, said on Channel 4 in early October that his organization is not in the position to evacuate the refugees encamped near the UNHCR’s center— who are desperately seeking to leave the country— since Libyan authorities suspended humanitarian flights in recent months. Yet, despite the flights recently resuming, they are still infrequent and will benefit a very limited number of people.
The atrocities that migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya are exposed to have been known for a long time to the international public as well as to EU member states and institutions. Torture, sexual abuse, extortion, and serious ill treatment are commonplace in Libya’s overcrowded detention facilities, as rights groups have widely documented.
Human rights NGO Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) published a joint report, “No way out” in late November, providing first-hand accounts of survivors that detail the systematic abuse of refugees and migrants, namely arbitrary detention, slavery, murder, rape, and other inhumane deeds.
This report argues that these cruel acts may amount to crimes against humanity and, as such, the International Criminal Court (ICC) should investigate.
This report argues that these cruel acts may amount to crimes against humanity and, as such, the International Criminal Court (ICC) should investigate and prosecute armed groups, militias, and Libyan state actors involved. It also questions the role that the EU and its member states have in enabling these crimes.
In collaboration with survivors, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) also filed a statement on grave crimes against refugees and migrants at the ICC, requestioning the opening of an investigation.
Europe’s migration policy infamously contributes to these crimes through its policy of supporting Libya intercepting asylum seekers and migrants at sea.
In the first nine months of 2021, the EU-trained and equipped Libyan coastguard captured more than 25,000 people and returned them to the war-torn country, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Over 1,100 migrants were reported dead or presumed dead off Libya’s shores.
Back in Tripoli, the crowds of African protestors continue to make their struggle heard around the world. They feel let down and forgotten, but they have no one else to turn to for help.
“Things are very, very tough, but we keep pressing our demands. We don’t have another option, we have nowhere to go,” David uttered while alluding to the refugees’ precarious conditions in front of the shuttered UN facility. Concluding: “We don’t want to die here. This is why we’re appealing to the international community to step in.”
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. Between 2010 and 2011 she lived in Palestine, she was based in Cairo between 2013 and 2017, and she is now based in Tunis. Her articles have appeared in Middle East Eye, The New Arab, TRT World and rt.com among others.