Tripoli battle leaves migrants and refugees at risk again

Tripoli battle leaves thousands of migrants and refugees at risk yet again
8 min read
25 April, 2019
Scores of migrants and refugees are at serious risk while locked in detention centres as well as trapped by fighting around Tripoli since Haftar waged war on the Libyan capital.
At least 3,000 migrants are stuck in camps near conflict zones in Tripoli [Getty]
As clashes between rival forces near the Libyan city of Tripoli intensify, thousands of refugees and migrants, mostly of African origin, are trapped in detention centres and in significant danger following the latest escalation in the county's eight-year long civil war.

Early this month, rogue General Khalifa Haftar ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army [LNA], allied to a parallel administration in the east, to start an offensive to capture the capital, the seat of Libya's internationally recognised Government of National Accord [GNA] which is protected by a range of militias.

Read more here: Libya's Haftar orders forces to 'advance' on Tripoli

At least 3,000 migrants are ensnared in official camps in or near conflict zones in Tripoli. Doctors Without Borders [MSF] said those held in these camps with no control over their own safety were "exceptionally vulnerable". There are reports of many more migrants in unofficial camps.

Detention centres that are close to armed clashes include Ain Zara, Qasr Bin Ghasheer, Abu Selim, all located south of Tripoli, alongside the Al Sabaa and Tajoura facilities.

Since the military operation began on April 4, the UN refugee agency estimates that over 9,500 people have been forced to flee their homes in and around the Libyan capital however more than 1,500 are believed to be trapped in detention centres that are closest to the fighting. As the conflict threatens to spread, more detained refugees and migrants could be at risk in new affected areas.

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"There's already serious risk posed to civilian lives, you can imagine those who are held in detention. There's increasing danger for them as we're not seeing an end to the infighting," commented Sarah Al Shaalan, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

"Conflict continues and escalates, endangering the Libyan population and the African migrant population at large," the MENA specialist said noting with regret that, from the early phase of Haftar's Tripoli campaign, calls by the UN for a temporary truce to evacuate trapped civilians and wounded was not respected.

According to latest figures provided by the World Health Organization [WHO], 272 have died and 1,300 people have been injured since the military offensive began near the Libyan capital.The internally displaced have reached 32,000.

In the face of the noticeably worsening security situation in Tripoli, on April 12, UNHCR issued an urgent appeal calling for the immediate release and evacuation of detained refugees caught in Libyan crossfire.

The UN agency reminded that refugees find themselves in the most vulnerable and dangerous of circumstances after fleeing conflict or persecution in their own countries to then end up locked as war sweeps over their lives again.

The great concern is how the ongoing conflict will add additional stresses on an already unstable environment

"The great concern is how the ongoing conflict will add additional stresses on an already unstable environment," noted Nathan Vest, Libya specialist at the RAND Corporation.

"As the civilian population is drawing on an already stretched network and availability of supplies, that will become even more scarce for at risk-populations such as African migrants and refugees."

MSF coordinator Craig Kenzie said that the "dangerous and inhumane" conditions the organisation was already witnessing inside camps before Haftar's push to take Tripoli have only become worse.

For the more than 3,000 refugees and migrants held captive who remain at risk of being close to the frontlines, the provision of basic services remains far limited, with reports of detention facilities hit by electricity, food and water shortages, and many not eating for several days.

MSF teams have observed among many people in detention a heightened sense of anxiety and fear, some of whom have reported hearing gunfire and airstrikes close by.

Thousands of detainees in migrant detention centres across Tripoli are reportedly terrified of what might happen to them.

Read also: Haftar's forces 'shoot detained refugees' amid ongoing Tripoli clashes

"[There are] no words to describe the fear of the women and children," an Eritrean male detainee at Qasr bin Ghashir told Al Jazeera.  

"Message from one of the hundreds of people still left in Abu Selim detention centre, close to the clashes, saying how frightened they are: 'Yesterday the whole day we hear (fighting). When it bombs our door vibrates. I think it is very near to us,'" Sally Hayden, a journalist who's been in touch with detainees around Tripoli, wrote on Twitter.

There have been reports of migrant detainees being coerced into military duties to support militias aligned with the GNA, a potential war crime

"We've stayed years with much torture and suffering, we don't have any resistance for anything. We are (under) deep pressure and stressed… People are very angry and afraid," another detainee at Abu Salim said speaking to Al Jazeera.  

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Moreover, there have been reports of migrant detainees being coerced into military duties to support militias aligned with the GNA, a potential war crime.

The Qasr Bin Ghasheer detention centre has been turned into enlistment barracks, based on official sources from UNHCR and Al Jazeera. Some of refugees and migrants are said to have been forced to move weapons.

"We've been informed that some migrants were given military uniforms and promised freedom in exchange for military service," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy for the central Mediterranean.

According to the refugee organisation, the practice of forcing migrants to take up arms has been found in at least three detention centres around the country since Haftar's advance began.

RAND's researcher observed that the extent of forcible conscription of African migrants by either of the warring sides is mainly correlated with how protracted the conflict is saying that, as the fighting prolongs, migrants become more "susceptible" to being forcibly enlisted.

"The risks to their lives are growing by the hour. They must be urgently brought to safety. Simply put, this is a matter of life or death," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in a statement.

Since the recent wave of violence in Libya erupted, Grandi has been discussing how much more difficult the fighting makes it for relief groups to work with migrants who are already in Libya.

By April 19, the refugee agency was able to facilitate the relocation of some 539 refugees from several detention centres near the immediate conflict zones to its Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF), including 179 from the Abu Selim centre. Among these numbers, UNHCR made two transfers of more than 150 refugees each. They were some of the most vulnerable and in need and included women and children.

The authorities must do everything to ensure the safety of these men, women and children, left without access to food, water and other essentials amid the escalating violence in and around Tripoli

Besides that, the UN refugee agency, in cooperation with the Libyan Ministry of Interior and authorities in Niger, evacuated about 163 refugees from Libya to Niger in the first such flight since the escalation in the Libyan capital. After their release from detention and before leaving Libya, the evacuees were sheltered at the GDF in the centre of Tripoli until the transfer to Niger was secured.

"We urge the international community to provide solutions for all trapped and detained refugees in Libya [including humanitarian corridors] to enable them to find safety either abroad or in areas away from the conflict," stressed Tarik Argaz, Communications and Public Information Officer at UNHCR's Libya Operation.

He explained that for more than a year the UN agency has been carrying out life-saving evacuations for vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers out of Libya. Since November 2017, more than 3,460 individuals have been evacuated out of Libya, including below 2,800 to Niger where they are hosted at a UNHCR Emergency Transit Mechanism [ETM] while longer-term solutions in third countries are sought for them.

UNHCR's efforts to secure additional transfers of refugees from other detention centres have been hampered by access and security challenges as the volatile security situation makes it difficult to access refugees in conflict-affected facilities, and to arrange their transportation to safer locations.

In response to news of more than 700 refugees and migrants detained in the Qasr Bin Ghasheer facility, Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, made an appeal in the media: "The Libyan government must immediately release all migrants and refugees from these horrific detention centres where they are held illegally and face appalling abuse and torture.

"The authorities must do everything to ensure the safety of these men, women and children, left without access to food, water and other essentials amid the escalating violence in and around Tripoli."

UNHCR, coordinating with Libyan authorities, attempted to relocate all 728 to the Zintan detention centre which is located in a safer area, however they refused the transfer, asking instead to be evacuated out of Libya altogether. Currently, evacuation options from the oil-rich country are extremely limited.

"In the coming days, we will continue to access more detention centres and evacuate. We will try to put in place evacuations out of Libya. But whether we're able to do that always depends on the security and logistics on the ground," Argaz said, adding, "It's not easy but we're working on it."

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec