SEATTLE — With its 1,100-mile coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, Libya has become a crossing point for many Middle Eastern and African refugees hoping to reach Europe. As of June 1, 2018, there are 52,031 asylum seekers and refugees in Libya registered with UNHCR, the U.N.’s Refugee Agency, as well as 179,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs). UNHCR helps refugees and IDPs in Libya by monitoring government detention centers, providing medical consultations, helping individuals apply for resettlement and assisting with evacuation.
The Plight of Refugees in Libya
Of the six countries that border Libya, five are plagued by war or violent unrest. Other African countries, including Eritrea and Somalia, have similar conditions; according to MSNBC, Eritrea’s government is “notorious for one of the worst human rights records in the world and for condemning citizens to lifetimes of mandatory military service,” sending thousands of refugees into Libya with hopes of reaching Europe.
Libya itself has been plagued by conflict since the collapse of the government in 2014, making it dangerous for both migrants and Libyans. Two factions have been fighting for control of the nation, creating armed conflict that has left hundreds of thousands of Libyans displaced and without a home. Many refugees and asylum seekers traveling through Libya are sent to detention centers that are overcrowded and unsanitary.
For those that do manage to reach the Libyan coastline, passage to Europe is not always safe or easy to come by. Desperate to reach Europe, refugees in Libya often pay smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean Sea. Some have “fallen victim to torture, rape or human slavery by criminal gangs along the route,” according to UNHCR, while others die at sea because the smuggler’s boat was not equipped to handle the number of passengers on board. MSNBC reports that more than 3,000 refugees have perished while attempting to reach European shores.
UNHCR Provides Much-Needed Assistance
Since late 2017, when UNHCR’s evacuation program began, 1,474 individuals in Libya (including children) have been successfully moved to Niger, Italy and ETC Romania, an emergency transit center in the city of Timisoara. On June 19, 2018, the head of UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, boarded a flight to Niger with 122 refugees from Libya who had been identified as extremely vulnerable. They will be processed in Niger and then resettled in a third country.
Prior to resettlement, individuals must submit an application and be accepted by a resettlement state. UNHCR helps with this process as well, and currently, 886 refugees in Libya are waiting for a decision from a resettlement state. Once they are accepted, UNHCR will assist in safely transporting them.
Additionally, UNHCR works to gain access to refugee detention centers in order to provide humanitarian assistance and ensure human rights violations are not occurring. In 2017, all official detention centers were visited and monitored by UNHCR and 1,430 refugees were released from detention. Ultimately, UNHCR is advocating for the end of refugee detention, suggesting alternatives that include child care facilities and family tracing.
In urban areas, UNHCR conducts outreach programs in order to identify and register refugees and IDPs who require assistance or protection. Registration is the primary method by which UNHCR is able to assess the extent of the refugee crisis in Libya and create a plan to provide effective assistance. Since 2016, UNHCR has registered 15,569 individuals.
UNHCR Aid Reaches Record Number of Refugees
UNHCR has also had success with helping Libyan IDPs return to their homes, with 372,022 returnees as of June 1, 2018. According to UNHCR, in cases where IDPs cannot yet be returned home, they are provided with “shelter kits, core relief items and cash assistance.” Grandi indicates that supporting IDPs is a priority for the agency and urges people not to forget that Libyans continue to be forced from their homes and are in desperate need of assistance.
Overall, in 2017 and 2018 UNHCR has been able to assist thousands of IDPs and refugees in Libya. Successes in 2017 included the distribution of 49,240 non-food items and 5,327 rescue kits, as well as the provision of 28,320 medical consultations. As of June 1, 2018, UNHCR is on track to surpass these numbers for 2018, already having provided 19,278 medical consultations and 5,036 rescue kits and distributed non-food items to 33,085 refugees and IDPs.
Goals for the remainder of 2018 include providing disabled individuals with appropriate care, ensuring all accessible detention centers meet minimum standards, improving access to primary healthcare in detention centers and at disembarkation points and guaranteeing refugees have sufficient basic and domestic items. Their overall objective in Libya continues to be to “improve protection and life-saving assistance to displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers,” according to UNHCR.
With continuing efforts by UNHCR, assistance for and resettlement of refugees in Libya are likely to increase, creating safer conditions for refugees remaining in Libya and traveling to Europe. Grandi remarked in a UNHCR release that while numbers are always mentioned when discussing refugees, he believes “it’s not about numbers, it’s about people.” He states, “These are women. These are men. These are children. Desperate people who are risking their lives, and often losing their lives, to go to a better future.”
– Sara Olk