Refugees in Libya Hoped for Help From the UN. Instead, They Were Abandoned

After being let out of prison, some 450 people sought sanctuary at a UNHCR facility in Tripoli, only to learn that the agency doesn't have the resources – and reportedly is trying to starve the migrants out

Tamara Baraaz
Migrants after being rescued by the Libyan coast guard in Tripoli, October 16, 2019.
Migrants after being rescued by the Libyan coast guard in Tripoli, October 16, 2019. Credit: Ismail Zitouny / Reuters
Tamara Baraaz

About a month ago, 450 Eritreans were let out of the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and marched through the streets. They knew that nothing would protect them in a city bursting with human traffickers. Many locals look for refugees to buy and sell into slave labor or prostitution – or the Africans might be sold to traffickers of human organs, or be locked in a storeroom and tortured until someone pays a ransom.

So the Eritreans marched for hours to the Gathering and Departure Facility of the UNHCR refugee agency, hoping to join refugees who had already found new homes in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Refugees at the UNHCR facility receive treatment and food until their departure.

The detainees who left Abu Salim knew this, so they stood outside the fence that surrounds the UNHCR compound and begged to be let in – but they were told there was no room.

They spent the following day, their first outside the prison, at the fence. The UNHCR staffers, most of them locals – partly because Libya strictly limits the United Nations’ authority in the country – told them they had to return to prison. Two days later they were allowed to enter the compound, but there wasn’t enough room, so they were told to sleep outside.

Only a few months earlier, the United Nations had declared that conditions in Libya’s detention facilities were unacceptable and the detainees should be evacuated. Still, new groups of refugees are being sent to the detention camps after being seized by the authorities along the Libyan coast or out at sea.

In the past year, refugees have ramped up their efforts on social media, including videos showing their prison conditions. Despite the harsh images from inside prisons including Zintan, Zawiya and Qasr bin Ghashir, there has been no noticeable change in the refugees’ plight.

And last week, The Guardian reported on a plan to suspend food supplies to the Tripoli Gathering and Departure Facility from January 1 – not only for the refugees sleeping in the yard but also for anyone who arrived before them, including dozens of people with tuberculosis. A leaked document mentions a directive to UN staff to hide this fact until mid-December. A staff member told The Guardian that the move was meant to starve out the new arrivals from the compound.

The paper said it “asked whether denying food to former Abu Salim detainees in the facility was a ‘deliberate policy on UNHCR’s part,’” but this email and further requests for comment went unanswered.

African migrants at a detention center in Tripoli, Libya, November 30, 2019.Credit: AFP

Kenan Malik, a columnist for The Observer – a sister paper of The Guardian – wrote over the weekend: “The UNHCR’s actions, if the reports are true, are scandalous. They are also unsurprising. Starving refugees out of a place of safety is a fair metaphor for western policy towards unwanted migrants.” Malik likened the move to “a hospital that finds its patients so burdensome that it denies them medical care. A homeless hostel that turfs its residents out on the streets.”

Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UNHCR, told The Associated Press over the weekend, “The situation is very difficult, and we do not have the resources, because the center in Tripoli is at about twice its capacity, with some 1,200 migrants.”

The UNHCR asked the unregistered refugees to leave the facility and receive an assistance package that includes cash for two months, underwritten by the European Union. In the meantime, the refugees remain in the yard of the Gathering and Departure Facility weighing their next move, if they can fathom one.

As a resident of the yard told Haaretz, “We’re living without support, without food and without any possibility of evacuation.”

These people, of course, have no intention to return to prison. Another refugee who left Abu Salim after spending a year or so there is Abraham (not his real name). On WhatsApp he told me that the beating of prisoners there is a matter of routine. Prison guards have tried to harass women many times; the prisoners had to be on their guard and try to smuggle the women out. From October 2018, the prison staff stopped providing food. The detainees had to look out for themselves.

Another refugee, who spent several months in the prison, explained how they obtained food. “We would ask our families in Eritrea for money for food. They would send cash via agents. The money passed through Sudan and Libya, with the agents along the way taking their share in fees,” he said.

“Sudanese detainees would leave the prison – they were the only ones who knew Arabic – to meet the final agent who had arrived in the city, to receive the money from him, buy food with it and then return to the prison. The money didn’t always arrive. Sometimes it was stolen or would disappear. Even when it did come, it wasn’t enough to feed 450 people, so we were always hungry. Some of our families sold their property. My parents sold the house in order to feed me.”

Not long ago, their situation deteriorated further. “The prison guards wanted to lock the cell and confiscate our cellphones,” Abraham said. “They also threatened that they would shut off the water and prevent Doctors Without Borders from entering. We objected. We knew that without telephones, without medical care, in a locked cell, our situation would decline even further.” He said the prison warden told them: “These are the conditions here. You don’t want to be here? Then leave and look for food outside.”

And so it was that hundreds of detainees left, little by little, including women and children, tuberculosis sufferers and a few who had developed severe psychological problems. “Every so often someone in prison went crazy and his friends would try to get him under control,” Abraham said. “One of them got into the prison’s sewage system one night, got stuck there and died. It’s not clear how he got in there.”

Although the prison warden himself opened the gate, the refugees didn’t really feel they were free. They knew what they could expect outside – starvation or abduction, two experiences they had already endured on their way to Libya.

Rescued migrants next to a coast guard boat at Khoms, Libya, October 1, 2019. Credit: Hazem Ahmed / AP

Lost at sea

For years, Libya has been a way station for refugees from Eritrea and other African countries, including Somalia and Sudan, on their way to Europe. The smugglers’ crowded, flimsy boats sometimes run aground or sink in the middle of the sea. These vessels have become a symbol of the European refugee crisis.

Some countries have adopted an iron fist policy toward the refugees. Italy says rescuing them from the sea and bringing them to the Italian coast is illegal, and rescuers have been charged with human trafficking. In 2017, the EU began supplying the Libyan coast guard with funding and sophisticated locating devices to let it send refugee boats back to Libya.

Columnist Malik wrote about this as well: “Central to the EU’s strategy over the past decade has been the outsourcing of immigration control, paying countries from Libya to Sudan, from Niger to Turkey, to deter potential migrants to Europe. In this process a new form of imperialism is emerging, whereby rich nations, in the name of protecting their borders from migrants, trample all over the borders of poorer neighbours.”

He added: “Nor does the EU particularly worry about whom its ‘partners’ lock up, so long as they lock up potential migrants to Europe. In the Sahel [region of Africa], 80% of migration is not to Europe but is regional, involving people who for decades have moved around an area in which borders are naturally porous. Militias and security forces don’t care to sift through different kinds of migrants, so all become targets for the new kidnap and detention industry. The result is the disruption of traditional trade routes, growing economic instability and rising discontent – feeding the desire for migration.

“The EU turns a blind eye to the treatment of detainees, too. European governments are not just aware of the torture, sexual abuse and extortion to which detainees are subject but also, in the words of Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen, ‘complicit in these abuses.’ The whole point of outsourcing is to pay others to do Europe’s dirty work. The more hostile the climate for migrants in countries such as Libya or Niger, the more effective the policy of keeping migrants away from Europe.”

Niger, Italy and Rwanda

About 6,000 refugees currently live in detention facilities in Libya. With the increased media coverage, the Libyans tried to expel some of them; some were sent to Niger, where they await resettlement. But this move was suspended because no immigration quotas were offered in Europe.

In April, the UNHCR restarted the evacuations, and 163 refugees were sent to Niger. About two months later another 149 were evacuated from Zawiya and Zintan to Italy. Then smaller groups were transferred to Rwanda. Last Thursday, for example, 117 refugees were sent there. Still, it’s still unclear how much longer the Rwanda plan will continue, how many refugees will be evacuated under its aegis and whether a solution has really been found for thousands of refugees all told.

A dictatorship has been in power in Eritrea for over two decades, headed by President Isaias Afwerki. Even though the country isn’t at war, its citizens must perform military service that begins at age 17 and can continue to age 50. Their “service” includes a wide variety of labor like construction work, road paving, fishing and mining. But there is no pay aside from pocket change from the military. This “system” has been recognized around the world as slavery. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are limited, and many people are imprisoned and/or disappear.

The regime is known for its long arm, even abroad, including spying on refugees in their new countries, and the abuse of human rights activists, whom it has deported. In that respect, Eritrea is one of the largest refugee exporters in the world; around 15 percent of its citizens now live abroad. Many of them pass through Libya in their attempt to reach Europe; they represent a large portion of the detainee population there.

I began corresponding with refugees from Eritrea as early as the first week they were brought into the compound of the Gathering and Departure Facility. They speak to anyone willing to hear. Many of them are sick and hungry, and their access to the internet is spotty. Once every few days I tried to learn if they were receiving any food, and they always said no. One time they received a few cookies from the UN staffers, and also bread that was contributed by veteran refugees at the compound out of their own meager rations.

Most of the food was given to the 50 tuberculosis patients; the others sit in the yard and wait. “We were told that they had to give us food, but the days pass and that isn’t happening,” Abraham said.

A number of them are suffering from the effects of hunger – swollen feet, diabetes, a skeletal appearance. A few days ago, a month after they entered the compound, Abraham announced: “We’ve been told to leave the facility. We’ve been told that if we don’t cooperate, we’ll have no chance to be included in any relocation plan out of Libya.”

They were given two options – either return to the Abu Salim prison, which refuses to feed them, or go to the Gurji neighborhood, where the community center is coping poorly and barely offers any remedy to the few refugees there. Gurji was a magic word offering a nonexistent solution.

After being interviewed by the UNHCR, some of the migrants – Ethiopians, Somalis and Eritreans – found out that they weren’t entitled to refugee status. They say no one told them why. “A situation has come about where even in Libya, Eritrean refugees are afraid to talk about the situation in Eritrea or criticize the regime,” Abraham said.

“They’re seeing that not everyone receives refugee status. They fear that some of them will be deported back to Eritrea. And anyone who’s deported there could be imprisoned, undergo torture and give information about his brothers in Libya. So everyone is being cautious around each other.”


The UNHCR said in response that the claim about starving refugees "is totally inaccurate. The facility was set up as a transit centre – a safe place for vulnerable refugees, who we had managed to get released from detention, pending evacuation to third countries.

"Since July, approximately 900 new people (including those held in Tajoura and Abu Salim, as well as some from the urban community) have gained entrance in the GDF/its transit area, hoping they could get on flights out of Libya. However, given the small number of resettlement places that are available worldwide, we have to prioritise the most vulnerable and 'at risk' cases, and these individuals had not been previously identified as priorities.

"Their presence has, unfortunately, meant that the centre is vastly overcrowded and this has impacted the provision of services. There are also women and unaccompanied children in detention, whom we cannot release and transfer now to the GDF because it is overcrowded.

"We have been trying to find solutions since the new arrivals in July. We have told people, who are free to leave at any time, that we can provide outside at our Community Day Centre: cash assistance, relief items, medical referrals and protection interviews.

"We will maintain basic services at the centre, including health and sanitation, but we are phasing out catering next year, as we are offering individuals the urban assistance package, which includes cash that they can use for food and shelter".

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