‘Point of no return’: Refugees in Libya long for safety
An evacuation flight has brought some to safety, but many more remain camped outside UNHCR centre in Tripoli pleading for relocation.
David Oliver Yambio has run out of options.
The 24-year-old from South Sudan is among the hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who have spent more than seven weeks camped outside a United Nations centre in Tripoli to demand relocation to a safe place after being targeted in a major crackdown in western Libya.
Yambio was living in Gergaresh, west of Tripoli, when security officers stormed the impoverished neighbourhood on October 1. Unarmed people were harassed in their houses, beaten and shot during the raid, the UN said, with one killed and six seriously wounded.
Overall, more than 5,000 people, including hundreds of children, were detained in the first days of October, according to a UN tally. Authorities described it as a security campaign against undocumented migration and drug trafficking, but the Ministry of Interior made no mention of traffickers or smugglers being arrested.
For those who lost their homes and few possessions in the raids, the incident was the last straw.
“We have reached the point of no return,” Yambio told Al Jazeera.
Days after his arrest, Yambio and some 500 people managed to escape from a detention centre in Tripoli, as guards opened fire using live ammunition. At least 10 people were shot dead and many more wounded during two separate escape attempts in early October, according to the UN.
The brief detention resurfaced traumatic memories for Yambio, who has been trapped in Libya since 2018 after fleeing war in his home country.
Following a failed attempt at reaching Italy via boat in 2019, Yambio spent more than seven months in a detention centre in Misrata, where he said living conditions were akin to “torture”.
“We had very little water so sometimes we drunk the water from the toilet,” he said. “People had kidney problems, diseases, some developed mental problems.”
Along with others from sub-Saharan African countries, Yambio has been at the sit-in outside the premises of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) since his escape last month. He estimated that about 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been on the streets for more than 50 days, sleeping in makeshift beds made from plastic bags and a few blankets without access to sanitary facilities.
To amplify their demands, and break what they describe as a cycle of violence and abuse, some have formed a group called, “Refugees in Libya”.
“We finally have the courage to speak up for our rights,” said Yambo, who has become the group’s de facto spokesperson.
Ninety-three people were evacuated on Thursday to Rome as part of the “humanitarian corridors” scheme established in 2016 by the Italian government in collaboration with a coalition of faith-based organisations.
It was UNHCR’s first evacuation from Libya in more than a year, after Libyan authorities lifted a ban on humanitarian flights. Since 2017, the UN agency has evacuated or resettled 6,919 refugees and asylum seekers out of Libya, of which 967 were admitted to Italy.
“While this offers hope to some, it is not a solution we can provide for all,” Caroline Gluck, a Tunis-based UNHCR spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
“Around 1,000 persons have been awaiting departure on these flights this year … We urge the international community to offer more legal pathways to help people safely leave Libya.”
Gluck said the UNHCR has been providing emergency cash assistance but Libya, which descended into chaos in the wake of a 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, “cannot be considered a country of asylum nor a place of safety”, making it necessary to find long-term solutions.
As the Tripoli sit-in continues, Amnesty International has called for relocation of the refugees and asylum seekers who were targeted in the raids to a safe place.
“Hundreds have lost their only homes and are unable to find a new place to rent because landlord refusing to rent to migrants,” Hussein Baoumi, the rights group’s Libya researcher, told Al Jazeera.
“Nothing feels safe anymore because they can be uprooted at any time.”
Amnesty said refugees and asylum seekers camped outside the UNHCR facility have been attacked and harassed multiple times by armed groups who “know there will be no accountability and they can abduct and kill with impunity”.
The UNHCR said it suspended operations at the Community Day Centre citing unrest, which it attributed to “a number of individuals in the group preventing others from accessing the site for help”.
The agency declined to comment on reports of a UNHCR security officer being involved in the violence and allegedly stabbing an asylum seeker.
Amnesty and other human rights groups have documented systematic abuses taking place in Libyan detention centres and have called on European states to halt their collaboration with authorities in Libya, including the EU-financed Libyan coastguard.
For people like Yambio, there is no alternative to remaining camped outside the UNHCR centre until a solution can be found.
“If the government comes and clears the area, we will die one by one,” he said. “This is a point of no return.”