As fighting rages between rival groups in Libya, where two separate governments are struggling for control of the North African country, hundreds of thousands of residents have been uprooted from their homes.
According to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, more than 400,000 people have been internally displaced by the ongoing violence in Libya, while scores more have fled to neighbouring countries. Even as Libya’s warring sides participate in UN-brokered talks in an attempt to strike a unity government, there is no end in sight to the country’s massive displacement crisis.
Al Jazeera spoke with Megan Bradley, an assistant professor of political science at McGill University in Canada who studies Libya and specialises in the topic of forced migration, about the scale of the crisis and the outlook for displaced residents.
Al Jazeera: How many Libyans are currently displaced, both internally and externally, and what factors have led to the scale of this crisis?
Megan Bradley: The ongoing violence in Libya, and the lack of formal registration processes for Libyans who have taken shelter in neighbouring countries, make it extremely difficult to give reliable estimates of the number of Libyans who have been forced from their homes. Countless people have been subjected to repeated displacements.
In August 2014, the Tunisian minister of foreign affairs indicated that there were 1.5 million Libyans in Tunisia. This figure presumably included Libyans who were simply visiting or working in Tunisia, as well as those in need of protection and unable to return to Libya.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva estimated that in December 2014, at least 400,000 people had been uprooted within Libya as a result of the fighting that engulfed Libya over the course of 2014. In addition, an estimated 60,000 Libyans, primarily Tawerghans and the Mashashiya, have been in a situation of protracted displacement since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
Al Jazeera: In what areas has most of the displacement happened, and how difficult has it been for these people to build new lives in the shadow of Libya’s ongoing conflict?
For poorer families without resources to draw on, the situation has been dire from the outset and is only getting worse, as there has been extremely limited access to humanitarian assistance.
Bradley: In terms of the internal displacement situation, there has been massive displacement in major cities, including Tripoli and Benghazi, but also in smaller towns and villages. Some internally displaced persons take shelter in informal camps or in empty public buildings, in parks or on construction sites.
Many of these people are on the poorer edges of Libyan society and have not been able to attempt to rebuild their lives – they are living day to day, struggling with inadequate access to humanitarian support and the ongoing risk of violence. In addition, thousands of migrant workers have been displaced within Libya and are particularly vulnerable to impoverishment and abuse.
Most Libyans who have been able to flee the country have gone to Tunisia, where they face a variety of circumstances. Tunisia has opened up access to schools and some other important services for Libyans, but many of those who have taken shelter in Tunisia are reliant on their own resources. When these resources start to run out, they face increased risk of impoverishment.
While the situation for Libyans in Tunisia is much more stable than it is for IDPs within Libya, even those who have been able to escape face considerable uncertainty in terms of legal status and long-term prospects. In the absence of increased stability in Libya, life for displaced Libyans inside and outside the country will continue to be precarious.
Al Jazeera: What kind of pressure is this putting on neighbouring states?
Bradley: Tunisia has been responsible and generous in keeping its borders open. Compared to the restrictions that western countries put on the arrival of asylum seekers, states and communities across the Middle East and North Africa have been tremendously hospitable as the region grapples with an unprecedented displacement crisis.
But this hospitality does come at a cost in terms of increased pressure on limited social services, rising rents, and tensions in communities hosting large numbers of exiles.
Al Jazeera: Is there any hope that the displaced may be able to return to their hometowns and cities in the foreseeable future?
Bradley: As it stands, the prospects are bleak for what humanitarians call “durable solutions” to the displacement crisis in Libya. Everything hinges on increased security in Libya; in the absence of stability, the displaced will continue in a tense limbo situation.
To cope with this situation, many displaced Libyans have relied on their own personal resources and savings, but for many families these resources are drying up as the situation drags on.
For poorer families without resources to draw on, the situation has been dire from the outset and is only getting worse, as there has been extremely limited access to humanitarian assistance since the withdrawal of international organisations from Libya in the summer of 2014. The Libyan Red Crescent Society is one of the only groups left still providing aid to IDPs in Libya.
Al Jazeera: Why hasn’t the international community done more?
Bradley: The Libyan displacement crisis has been overshadowed by the chaos in Syria and Iraq. To a certain extent, there has been an assumption that Libya is a well-resourced country, and that it should be able to take care of the needs of its own citizens – but there is a dire lack of effective structures to respond to critical humanitarian needs.
Tunisia’s willingness to provide shelter to fleeing Libyans has been a kind of “safety valve” for the crisis, but more international support is needed to help respond to the pressures that this places on the Tunisian government and communities.