Hundreds of asylum seekers detained in Libya after closure of UN refugee centre

·5-min read

Libyan security forces carried out a brutal operation in the early morning hours of January 10, arresting hundreds of hundreds of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who had been camped out in front of a UN refugee centre in the Libyan capital Tripoli since October 2021.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) centre, considered a “one-stop-shop” for refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, was shut down just before the operation, which many migrants said left them without recourse.

Following a similarly brutal police crackdown in October 2021, thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – most from sub-Saharan African countries – had been sleeping rough outside the UNHCR Community Day Center (CDC) in Tripoli. They had gathered in protest, demanding protection and evacuation to a third country.

The protest came to an end on January 10, when the CDC was officially closed, a month after UNHCR announced that it would be shut due to the growing crowd of people in front of the building’s entrances, making it increasingly difficult to function and provide services. Migrants say that the move has left countless people stranded and without aid.

[UPDATE 13/1/2022]: After the publication of this article, the press office of UNHCR contacted our editorial team to specify that "distribution of cash aid, food assistance, hygiene kits, and counselling was never interrupted despite suspension of activities at the CDC, and was undertaken in different distribution points in Tripoli, including to vulnerable persons gathering outside the CDC".

Even so, more than a thousand people continued to sleep outside the centre’s doors until security forces carried out a violent evacuation in the early morning hours of January 10, detaining hundreds of migrants and taking them to a detention centre.

‘They told us that we only had 10 minutes to leave, or they would take us to the detention centre’

Yambio David Oliver is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from South Sudan who has been in Libya for three years. He posted videos and regular updates about the incident on his Twitter page Refugees in Libya.

The evacuation started around midnight. The police and the vehicles arrived in different groups and were doing some suspicious movements around the neighbourhood. Then, it brought about tensions because people were afraid. They blocked the exits to the street that accessed the CDC. They blocked passage even for the Libyan citizens, there were no cars moving by – only military vehicles. People started to protest.

The police forces approached the protesters. Community leaders of the protesters spoke with them and exchanged a few words. They told us that we only had 10 minutes to leave, or they would take us to Ain Zara detention centre. Within this negotiation, we tried to understand who was in charge of this evacuation. If UNHCR was the ones responsible for the decree for us to be evacuated, if temporary accommodation was to be provided, we would go. But if not, we wouldn’t go, unless UNHCR staff was available to give us some confidence.

Migrants’ trust in the Libyan security forces has been waning for months. On October 1, 2021, security forces carried out a brutal operation in the municipality of Gargaresh, located several kilometres west of Tripoli and known to have a large migrant population.

Claiming to be fighting against drug trafficking and crime, security forces violently arrested 4,000 people, killing seven people and destroying several homes.

>> Read more on The Observers: ‘It was terrifying’: Thousands of migrants arrested in Libyan security forces crackdown

‘Armed guards were shooting in the air and firing at people, tearing apart tents’

These are the same people who arrested us in Gargaresh. So we negotiated the situation, but the refugees and asylum seekers came out in large numbers trying to denounce any use of violence, with signposts and chanting “Evacuation, evacuation” and “Freedom” and “Safety”. Amid this, tensions rose and the armed guards were shooting in the air and firing at people, tearing apart tents. They started to kick people and hit them with guns [Editor’s note: The Middle East Eye reported that several people were killed in the incident, according to eyewitnesses, and that medical teams had treated at least one person with a gunshot wound].

Within this process, a few people managed to escape and those who were on the run were shot at by the armed forces, which were part of the Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration [Editor’s note: the Libyan security agency which manages detention centres for migrants, accused of arbitrary detention practices by the UN]. These people were rounded up, they were beaten, the women were kicked. They were forcibly packed in buses and then taken to different locations, some to Ain Zara, and other detention centres.

Amid this violence, there were people who had nowhere to go, so they tried to go and jump into Libyan’s houses because we were surrounded by civilian residences. In Libya, in almost every house, someone has a gun. So they were afraid they would be shot. A few of us managed to escape arrest.

More than 1,000 people were rounded up by police on January 10, Yambio David Oliver said. He managed to avoid being detained by hiding out at a nearby residence until daybreak. After the operation, tents in front of the UNHCR offices were burnt and destroyed.

At least 600 people were taken to the Ain Zara detention centre, south of Tripoli. Some of those detained had “stab wounds, beating marks, and [were] separated from children”, Doctors Without Borders told the Middle East Eye.

Videos posted on Twitter show the overcrowding in the centre. According to Oliver, the migrants detained there are facing difficult conditions, including lack of food and clean water, toilets and blankets.

Many of the migrants camped in front of UNHCR have demanded to be evacuated to third countries, citing violence, torture and abuse. Evacuation flights out of Libya for asylum seekers resumed in October 2021, after being suspended for several months. Since then, Niger, Italy and other countries have allowed entry to vulnerable asylum seekers.

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