Libya: Is the UN At Fault For The Growing Humanitarian Crisis?

Addressing Geneva on the 14th of November, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed his great concern over the suffering of detained migrants and refugees in Libya. Hussein made it clear that in his, and many other’s eyes, there are a multitude of clear failures in the United Nations policy of assisting the Liberian Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants and refugees. This policy, by providing training, equipment and monetary funds to a nation with no stable government, aims to circumvent the international law principle of non-refoulment which prohibits international, or in this case European, vessels from returning asylum-seekers and refugees to nations in which they could face persecution. This freedom from persecution is what many fleeing from Libya are hoping for, however, due to the questionable morality of the policy, many are forcibly returned, in many cases to conditions worse than they fled. It is, therefore, no surprise that Hussein has denounced these actions as an “outrage to the conscience of humanity” and summarized the escalating humanitarian crisis in Libya as something that has “turned catastrophic”.

The failure of organizations, like the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM), to address this growing crisis cannot be understated. They have not only been passively ignoring the humanitarian crisis taking place but have in many instances been actively contributing to the issue. The UNs policy, which has already been highlighted as morally corrupt, as well as the increasing intervention from the EU and its member states, have done nothing so far to reduce the suffering of these migrants nor have they attempted to provide any substantive and viable alternative solutions. However, one of the most shocking issues, which was uncovered by Sally Hayden and reported on by the Foreign Policy Group, is the lack of involvement by the UNHCR and IOM. These agencies, which are purpose-built to provide additional services in crises such as this, were largely nowhere to be found. Although following the recent death and/or torture of at least 22 detainees, these agencies have now begun to act, however, the belated response is disconcerting and highlights the lack of true investment into managing this crisis.

The torture of the 22 detainees came following a protest in the Triq al-Sikka detention centre and is an unfortunate insight into the living conditions faced by those within such facilities. In the lead up to this protest, it was reported that hundreds of detainees had spent weeks locked up inside without proper ventilation, medication or general care. One inmate went as far to set himself on fire after losing all hope of being evacuated to a safer country. In other areas detainees have been forced to assist militias by moving munitions, cleaning facilities and, in the most extreme of cases, fight. Survivors of instances such as these have accused the GNA government of using them as human shields. On top of all these issues is it the prevalence of systematic abuse and exploitation of migrants in these centres.

However, we are not beyond hope. Although small, the UNHCR has helped more than 1500 refugees leave Libya as of December 2019. This number is only said to increase next year. Further, the increased international attention has begun to force agencies to act. Calls, like those of Hussein’s, are gaining more and more traction allowing for more scrutiny of operations. Thus, although undoubtedly in the middle of a crisis, the voice of those crying out for help is only growing louder, and as it grows, so to shall the response.

Patrick Mills-Munday