The news is that nothing happened. In Tripoli, thousands of refugees have been protesting for 99 days (as of this writing) asking to be evacuated to any country where they’re not risking their lives at every step, but no one has given them any answers. Along with frustration and fear, they have become more and more aware that they have been forgotten by the world.
“The international community does not want to listen to us. Our protest is now normalized before the global public. At first, there were some reactions from the media. Then nothing. No one seems to care that these people are demanding the right to live and not be tortured,” says David Oliver Yambio, a 24-year-old Sudanese man who is among the most active in the mobilization. “Am I afraid? I have nothing left to lose, in this protest we are gambling what little we had left,” he continues.
It all started on October 1, with the roundups in the Gargaresh neighborhood and then in other areas of the city. About 5,000 migrants were arrested. Those who escaped the raids sought shelter at the Community Day Centre (CDC) of the UNHCR. The migrant presence increased as the days passed and a protest camp was born. After the escape of 2,000 people from the Al Mabani detention center on October 8, the protesters multiplied, and UNHCR closed the center, saying it was unable to offer assistance to all.
The survivors brought with them the stories and the signs of the violence they suffered while in detention. This has been denounced for years by the reports of UN agencies or NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, and it has now come out directly from the voices and bodies of those who have suffered abuse and torture. From the camp, press conferences were organized, together with live interviews with international media.
On the social media profiles of @RefugeesinLibya we find heartbreaking texts and videos. Like the one of a woman who tearfully recounts having suffered violence at the hands of five armed Libyans and no longer finding her 6-year-old daughter. Or that of a refugee from Chad, handcuffed, his face dirty with dust and his clothes torn, who was beaten in front of the camera to convince his family to send money to the militia.
At the peak of the movement, the camp grew to 3,000 people; now there are about 1,000. Since the beginning of the protest at the CDC, three refugees have been killed: one shot in the middle of the crowd, two others run over. The Libyan reporter Saddam Alsaket was arrested on October 24 after covering the events, and it is not known what happened to him. On December 29, Al-Hadi Mohamed Sharaf, a 52-year-old refugee and activist, disappeared. The protesters claim he was kidnapped. He was last seen near the police checkpoint near the camp.
“We wanted to reach Europe seeking a second chance for our lives and therefore arrived in Libya. Here we became the hidden workforce of the Libyan economy,” reads the political manifesto written during the struggle. “Apparently this is not enough for Libyan authorities. Our workforce is not enough. They want the full control of our bodies and dignity. What we found on our arrival was a nightmare made of tortures, rapes, extortions, arbitrary detentions.” Among the seven demands at the end of the text, in addition to their evacuation from Libya, we find: the cancellation of funding for the “Coast Guard” in Tripoli; the closure of the detention centers; investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of violence and murder; and the ratification of the Geneva Convention on Refugees by Libya.
On October 18, the same demands were included in a letter addressed to the European Union. It was a veritable J’accuse against the migratory policies implemented in recent years, written by those who have themselves suffered the effects. Two responses came from Brussels, one of them on behalf of Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas. The gist of both was that Europe said it was concerned about the situation in Libya, the violence against migrants and arbitrary detention, but there was no question of evacuating those whose lives were at risk. After all, the “Libyan hell” is a direct consequence of European policies that are intended to stop people on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. At any cost.
The only legal ways to leave the country remain the IOM’s voluntary repatriations for “economic migrants,” and humanitarian corridors and resettlements organized by UNHCR for the most vulnerable refugees. Humanitarian evacuations and transfer flights to Niger and Rwanda, where people are waiting to be resettled in quota-accepting countries, have been halted intermittently since 2020 due to decisions by the Libyans. They resumed on November 4, 2021, a month after the protest began. Over the following five weeks, 1,640 people were able to leave Libya safely. But there are more than 40,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in the North African country. “We are all vulnerable, we’re all risking our lives every day,” Yambio says.
During the protests, there were moments of tension between the UNHCR and refugees. The High Commission has denounced episodes of violence by some protesters and suspended activities at the CDC and, in the first ten days of December, at the office where it carries out registrations. Refugees say the UNHCR is failing to protect them from violence and does not support their claims. Head of mission Jean Paul Cavalieri said he does not consider evacuation a viable option and that solutions must be found in Libya, putting pressure on the authorities to respect human rights and end arbitrary detentions. At the same time, he acknowledged that the UNHCR was unable to protect refugees.
The Libyan authorities have a hostile attitude towards the organization and are refusing to enter into an official agreement with the UN agency. On January 2, the Libyan National Council for Civil Liberties and Human Rights published a statement in which it claimed that the UNHCR’s activities were illegal because Tripoli has not signed the Geneva Convention. Associations and NGOs from different cities have responded with a joint note against this argument.
Meanwhile, in the country that on December 24 was supposed to have elections, which were then postponed, arrests of migrants, including women and children, have resumed, accused only of not being in order with their papers. New raids have been reported in the first days of 2022 in Sabratha and Tripoli. The CDC has now permanently closed its doors, and the protesters fear that this could leave the space open for attacks by the militias. They’re keeping the protest going and continuing to call for help. But no one really wants to listen to these refugees who are self-organizing and struggling. Even if all they are asking for is to be treated as human beings.