Thousands of refugees and migrants plead for Libya evacuation

Appeals at Tripoli sit-in come as more than 5,000 people rounded up this month and put in indefinite detention in already overcrowded centres.

Asylum seekers' renewed appeals for assistance and evacuation came as a result of the latest crackdown on them in Tripoli [File: Ayman al-Sahili/Reuters]

Thousands of refugees and migrants have been camped out in front of a United Nations centre in Tripoli for three weeks, calling for evacuation from Libya in the wake of sweeping raids that saw thousands arrested.

The renewed appeals at the sit-in come even as the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said it had suspended work at the centre in the Libyan capital following the latest crackdown.

“No medical treatment. No food. No water. The big problem is toilet,” said one Eritrean man who has spent time at the site and did not want to be named. “We hope the UNHCR will take us to a safe country, otherwise whatever we do no one cares about us.”

Solidarity protests have been held in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy and Canada.

“But no solution comes still for them,” said an attendee in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, who was evacuated from Libya two years ago. “Still now, they did not get medical care and shelter.”

More than 5,000 people have been rounded up by security forces since October 1 and put into indefinite detention. They included some 540 women, at least 30 of whom were pregnant, according to UN estimates. Many had already spent years between government-associated detention centres and smugglers, and have survived torture and other abuses.

On October 8, at least six people were killed as thousands of detainees left an overcrowded detention centre known as Ghot Shaal, or al-Mabani.

Four days later, the UN said one of the men who was caught during the raids and then got out again – a 25-year-old Sudanese who fled conflict in Darfur – was shot dead by “a group of armed masked men”. Witnesses said his attackers were Libyan security forces.

“We are afraid, we can’t go outside,” an Eritrean, who has been hiding with his family since the raids began, said on a phone call from Tripoli. “Write about us. When it was war, it was better than now. We are more afraid now. We’re afraid to go to prison. We have children and we know the life in the prison.”

He said smugglers are currently charging $1,500 to $2,000 per person for an attempt to reach Italy or Malta via the Mediterranean Sea. “Many of us try to cross the sea,” he said, adding that they had lost faith in UNHCR and legal routes to safety. “[They] can’t do anything.”

He said two of his friends managed to escape a neighbourhood raid by the security forces but sustained injuries from whips.

“Many people, we don’t know where they went, they tried to escape from the police,” he said. “We won’t go outside here because a lot of people have died here but we don’t know what to do. If they go into the street you can be kidnapped and told to pay money.”

Spokesman Tarik Argaz said as many as 3,000 people are now waiting outside the UNHCR’s community day centre, but the agency suspended work there shortly after the raids for “security” reasons. Argaz said UNHCR staff are still engaging with refugees in other ways, including by distributing some aid.

“Their situation is precarious and we are extremely concerned about them,” he said. “Many have been affected by the raids, the demolition of their homes and their detention in horrific conditions. Others have joined, hoping to be evacuated. Many are now sleeping out in the cold, in an unsafe environment.”

The refugees and asylum seekers are hoping for evacuation to safe countries in Europe or North America, though the number of spaces offered by states is much lower than the level of need. This year, just 345 people have departed the country through evacuation flights, while in 2020, only 811 left that way.

In recent months, Libyan authorities have prevented evacuation flights from taking off. “This has resulted in more than 1,000 vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, currently prioritised for humanitarian flights, being unable to reach safety,” Argaz said.

Last week, UNHCR received a “verbal confirmation” that evacuation flights could soon resume, he added, though there is no formal written confirmation. “Our teams are already preparing all necessary logistics to resume evacuations the soonest. However, this may take some time since some of those prioritised for flights are currently in detention, due to the security operations. Others cannot be reached as their homes were demolished, belongings [and] phones taken,” Argaz said.

On Thursday, Libya hosted foreign dignitaries for the Libya Stabilisation Conference, which was held in a bid to drum up support for elections scheduled for December and January.

Libya has long attracted refugees and migrants from across Africa, who flee wars, dictatorships, or crushing poverty and hope to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. In 2017, the European Union pledged tens of millions of dollars towards training and equipping the Libyan coastguard to carry out interceptions along the coast, with the aim of stopping refugees and migrants from making this journey. More than 82,000 men, women and children have been caught at sea since then and been forced back to Libya, usually to indefinite detention.

Earlier this month, a fact-finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council found that “acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed against migrants [in Libya] form part of a systematic and widespread attack directed at this population, in furtherance of a state policy” and may amount to crimes against humanity.

Some people had gone through the same brutal cycle as many as 10 times, the mission’s report said, “paying guards to secure release, sea crossing attempt, an interception and subsequent return to detention in harsh and violent conditions, all while under the absolute control of the authorities, militias and/or criminal networks”.

Those speaking out recently in support of refugees trapped in Libya included prominent US lawmaker Ilhan Omar, who tweeted saying she was “deeply disturbed” by their treatment.

“Instead of welcoming the thousands of refugees fleeing violence and instability, the Libyan coastguard hands migrants over to militias, who systematically torture, rape, abuse and enslave them. Instead of welcoming refugees, the EU has sent $455 million to Libya since 2015.”

Source: Al Jazeera