Seventy-four years since the United Nations recognised the equal and inalienable right of all humans to live freely and peacefully, a South Sudanese asylum seeker is demanding the international community live up to its own principles.
As the world marked Human Rights Day on Saturday, David Yambio marched to the UN’s refugee agency headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to stage a second day of a sit-in alongside civil society organisations and fellow asylum seekers.
The 25-year-old was recruited as a child soldier before fleeing war both in his home country and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He arrived in Libya in 2018, where he was repeatedly detained and abused before reaching the Italian shores on board a dinghy in June.
Now he is on a mission: to make the pleas of thousands of refugees who are still enduring the horrors of Libya’s detention centres heard in Europe.
“We came together with civil society to give a voice to the people who have been silenced for years,” Yambio told Al Jazeera. “Their rights have been violated and the UNHCR has been watching passively.”
Yambio and his comrades-in-arms are asking the refugee agency to ensure that migrants in Libya can live under humane conditions, or else facilitate their evacuation to a safe country.
Strong interventions from comrades affected by the racist border regimes are continuing in our livestream:https://t.co/vf25Fk9S3V
— UNFAIR Agency (@UNFAIR_agency) December 9, 2022
At present, registering as asylum seekers at its offices in Tripoli guarantees no protection from displacement, arbitrary detention and abuse.
More than 4,000 migrants were detained in the western town of Gargaresh in October 2021 after raids killed at least one person and injured 15 others.
With nowhere else to go, hundreds camped in front of the UNHCR office in Tripoli for more than 100 days to demand assistance and protection.
“Women gave birth in the street, people in need of medical assistance were neglected and died,” Yambio said.
With a group of migrants, he set up the social media account Refugees in Libya, shining a rare spotlight on the living conditions of migrants in the country.
The sit-in was forcefully dispersed on January 10 as Libyan troops smashed up the protest site and arrested hundreds, taking them to the detention centre of Ain Zara.
Like other asylum seekers, Yambio said he believes the UNHCR called Libyan authorities to disperse the crowd stationed in front of its premises, a claim the organisation denied.
The UNCHR told Al Jazeera it “stands in solidarity with asylum seekers and refugees who live under extremely difficult conditions in Libya”.
“UNHCR has repeatedly stated that Libya is not a safe place for refugees and asylum seekers,” the agency said in a statement.
Since 2021, it facilitated the release of some 1,030 refugees and asylum seekers and 3,450 vulnerable refugees were evacuated or resettled out of Libya.
“While we continue to advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and all foreign nationals in Libya and for the release of all those arbitrarily detained, we emphasize that States have the primary responsibility of protecting these people,” it said.
UNHCR representatives met with the demonstrators to listen to their concerns and discuss where protection and assistance programmes should be expanded, while clarifying the limitations of the agency’s mandate, the statement added.
‘Animals have more freedom’
Among more than 600 migrants arrested in the raid on January 10, half are estimated to still be detained almost a year later.
A South Sudanese man told Al Jazeera via a messaging app from inside the Ain Zara detention centre that heavy rains in Tripoli have caused part of the structure to flood, soaking the mattresses habitually placed on the ground.
Malek, who asked for his real name not to be used in fear of reprisal, said he was losing hope of a different future. “Animals have more freedom than I do as a human being,” he said.
“I keep asking myself why all this is happening to me,” Malek added. “But I hope one day my tears will become tears of joy.”
More than 20,000 people who attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe have been returned to Libya by its coastguard this year.
The European Union has denied any responsibility for facilitating migrants’ returns to Libya, but humanitarian organisations say the material and technical support granted to the deeply divided country – where militias and armed groups are integrated into state institutions – strengthen its capacity to intercept migrants at sea.
Once returned to Libya, they are taken to detention centres, where systematic abuse including torture, sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation have been documented by humanitarian organisations including Amnesty International.
Yambio reached Italian waters on board a rubber dinghy in late June, after attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean four times. “Each time I was pushed back to inhuman conditions in the concentration detention camps in Libya,” he said.
He claims European member states created a mechanism that pushes people who need a place of safety away. “I’m one of these people,” he said.
‘Building up walls’
Humanitarian organisations are providing search-and-rescue operations in the absence of state-led missions. Italy’s newly elected far-right government last month failed to respond to requests for safe port from three NGO rescue ships, effectively denying permission to disembark to nearly 250 people rescued at sea.
An EU-sponsored memorandum between Italy and Libya signed in 2017 that grants the Libyan coastguard hundreds of millions of euros in funding and technical support was automatically renewed on November 2.
Humanitarian organisations united under the umbrella group Solidarity with Refugees in Libya – a reference to Yambio’s social media group that evolved into a grassroots community – protested in cities across Italy ahead of the renewal to demand its suspension.
Tiziano Schiena, an activist at Mediterranea Saving Humans and member of the umbrella organisation, said while Yambio’s group has grown to include representatives of 11 nations and it practises “grassroots democracy,” Europe is “doing exactly the opposite by building up walls”.
“This is not something we can accept,” he told Al Jazeera from the sit-in in Geneva.
On December 10 in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming the inalienable rights of every human being in the aftermath of the extermination of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime.
According to Schiena, “Libya is the biggest shame of Europe since World War II” and one that is forcing Europe to confront its racial bias once again.
As for Yambio, having reached the safety of Italy does not erase years of suffering. “There is no space to continue to be silent or to take up a new life,” he said.
The stories of those who languish in detention in Libya “have to be told to common people, they have to be told in schools – then we can influence the decision-making, so that the dimension in which these political agreements are drawn can be changed”.