(Amman) – More than 2,000 African asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants camping since early October 2021 in precarious conditions in front of a shuttered United Nations facility are in dire need of shelter, food, and medical treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Libyan authorities need to respond to this humanitarian emergency, and European states, whose support enables Libyan authorities to prevent people from reaching European shores, should scale up humanitarian evacuations.
Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers gathered around the Community Day Centre (CDC) after armed groups linked to the Interior Ministry conducted widespread raids and makeshift shelter demolitions in Tripoli’s Hai al-Andalous municipality. They were purportedly targeting criminal networks but left thousands homeless. Those who remain outside the CDC, where the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, previously provided medical assistance and other services, are peacefully demanding evacuation from Libya to a safe location amid worsening humanitarian conditions and attacks by armed groups.
“By demolishing migrants’ and asylum seekers’ makeshift shelters, Libyan authorities manufactured a humanitarian crisis, leaving thousands of people fending for themselves in the streets,” said Hanan Salah, Libya director at Human Rights Watch. “Libya and European states should urgently respond to this rapidly deteriorating situation as people are being exposed to violence and lack basic any help for basic needs.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with refugees and asylum seekers among those holding out near the CDC and with civic groups. Researchers also reviewed photos and videos sent by asylum seekers and refugees and derived from social media.
Armed groups and police units linked with the Interior Ministry of the Government of National Unity (GNU) raided Tripoli neighborhoods around the Gergaresh area, where many African migrants and asylum seekers lived, on October 1 and the following days, purportedly to disrupt illicit drug networks. The groups arrested at least 5,000 people, including women and children and UNHCR-registered asylum seekers and refugees, and transferred them to migrant detention centers.
During the raids, the armed groups killed one person and wounded at least 15 others, according to UNHCR. Armed groups arbitrarily arrested and detained people without individual verification of immigration or asylum status.
Armed groups and units under the Interior Ministry also demolished makeshift housing without offering any viable alternatives and making thousands of people effectively homeless.
A registered asylum seeker from South Sudan who was in his dwelling during early morning raids on October 1 said multiple armed groups and Interior Ministry units surrounded the neighborhood with armored vehicles and light and heavy weapons. Shooting lasted from around 1 a.m. to 8 a.m., he said: “I could hear many women and children crying. I saw horrific destruction. I managed to sneak out with others and spent the whole day and night in perpetual fear, while starving and thirsty. We were too afraid to ask anybody for help, so some even drank from the sea.”
Of those arrested on October 1, the authorities transferred over 4,000 people including women and children to a migrant prison known as Al-Mabani in Ghot al-Shaal, while the rest were transferred to other migrant prisons in Tripoli. Several detainees who were at Al-Mabani said that inhumane conditions there, such as severe overcrowding, lack of sufficient food and medical care, and ill-treatment resulted in riots and a mass prison break on October 8.
Former detainees described severe beatings with wooden sticks and alleged that one detainee died on October 5 after a guard struck him on the head with a metal object. During the breakout, guards shot and killed at least six detainees and injured scores of others, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Those in the streets in front of the CDC described harrowing living conditions. Since the UNHCR closed the center on October 4 citing security concerns for staff due to the large crowds encamped there, they had not received any cash or in-kind assistance from any international organization or the Libyan government. They said some private citizens donated some food. They said they had no access to toilets and no shelter from the rain and very little means to buy food.
UNHCR told Human Rights Watch on November 3 that since CDC was shuttered, it had distributed emergency aid six times between October 13 and 21 in other areas of Tripoli, reaching an average of 60 people each time. UNHCR said that some of the people camping in front of CDC were among the beneficiaries and were provided with emergency cash and food parcels to last up to one month and were reissued lost or damaged documents.
People camping on the streets are also exposed to attacks by armed groups as well as traffic accidents. In one incident on October 27 a car hit a 17-year old Eritrean boy who subsequently died, UNHCR confirmed.
On October 12, armed men apparently from a local militia that controls the area known as Fursan Janzour, beat and twice shot Sudanese asylum seeker Amer Abker in front of CDC while trying to arrest him, several refugees said. He died the next day.
A registered asylum seeker from Sudan said he had walked for an hour to reach an acquaintance so he could wash and use a toilet. “Even mosques have now shut their doors to us refugees,” he said. “I am afraid to move around as I could be attacked. We are afraid, no one can protect us.”
UNHCR should urgently explore all avenues for ensuring that the basic needs of people currently outside of the CDC are met, and take steps to identify people with protection needs, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR should also move quickly to reopen the center safely, including to provide accommodation to the most vulnerable among those sleeping in the streets.
Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabeiba, in a statement after the raids on October 1, called the Interior Ministry officers “heroes.” Without providing any evidence, he said that they had carried out “a planned security operation, to eliminate the largest drug manufacturing and distributing dens in the Gergaresh area,” and he vowed to pursue criminals “in all regions of Libya.”
Libya’s General Prosecutor should urgently conduct a transparent investigation into alleged deaths of asylum seekers and migrants due to the security operations and prison break in early October, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented systematic and widespread abuses committed with impunity against migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya over the years by prison guards, armed groups linked with Libyan authorities, and traffickers and smugglers. Between January and September, Libyan authorities intercepted more than 27,551 people at sea and forced them back to Libya, where they face inhumane detention conditions, sexual violence, torture, forced labor, extortion, and death.
EU policies to contain migrants and asylum seekers in Libya through supporting Libyan authorities, and clear evidence of this support contributing to ongoing abuses despite mitigating efforts, make the EU complicit in these abuses. The EU has a special responsibility to ensure evacuations, of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants at risk in Libya, including directly to EU countries
EU member states should condition cooperation with Libyan authorities on migration on the prompt release of all refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants being arbitrarily detained; formal recognition of UNHCR and allowing it the full exercise of its mandate; the signature and ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention; and establishment of national programs for independent, impartial, and transparent monitoring of human rights violations against migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya.
“The international community including UNHCR needs to step up aid efforts to help those in dire need, and Libyan authorities need to end the deadlock and urgently ensure restart of humanitarian evacuations,” Salah said. “Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants lacking shelter should be offered temporary safe solutions and viable alternatives to detention.”
Update 11/03/2021: This version of the press release has been updated to include information provided by UNHCR about its distribution of emergency aid.