Without Food Or Water: Libya’s Unregistered Refugees Abandoned Amidst Renewed Conflict

For the past month, Libya has suffered heightened conflict between militia groups, catalyzed by a surprise attack launched by the Seventh Brigade on 27 August.

Several years of civil war in Libya have resulted in a severe, protracted crisis, leaving half a million people displaced and basic infrastructure destroyed. In recent years, Libya’s internal conflict has appeared to improve. An internationally recognized interim government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), was appointed in 2016, the Islamic State was ousted from Benghazi in 2017, and Libya’s rival governments agreed to hold national elections on 10 December 2018. This latest renewal of conflict not only threatens to disrupt electoral plans, but has also left thousands of refugees and migrants vulnerable and abandoned amid the fighting.

Militias on either side of the conflict claim to be improving Libya’s current situation. Those aligned with the GNA assert that they are expelling criminals, while the Seventh Infantry Brigade claims to be ousting groups that are blackmailing state institutions. However, it is evident that the renewed conflict has achieved neither outcome, and has only further endangered the security of civilians through indiscriminate shootings. By the time a ceasefire agreement was negotiated on 4 September, 61 were killed and 159 wounded. The majority of those wounded were civilians. The United Nations-negotiated ceasefire agreed to “end all hostilities, protect civilians, safeguard public and private property and reopen Mitiga airport in Tripoli,” but fighting has continued to break out sporadically. United Nations Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, reported 14 ceasefire violations last week, including an outbreak on 21 September that killed 5 civilians. Vincent Cochetel, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean situation, emphasizes that the “appearance of stabilization for 18 months was just deceptive and based on wrong assumptions… now refugees need to be evacuated if we want to save lives.”

The Irish Times reported that during the fighting, most of the refugees held in detention centres were released, moved, have escaped, or are currently sleeping rough. Five groups of refugees and migrants have contacted Irish journalist Sally Hayden through WhatsApp, reporting their circumstances in hopes of attracting support from the United Nations and other international organizations. One particular group of 400 people, including 120 women, 20 children, and 8 pregnant women, has been left “open to be killed,” abandoned by their guards without access to food, water, or security. The United Nations Refugee Agency reported in early September that these detention centres were “appalling,” “nightmarish,” “cruel, inhumane and degrading.” Now left without even these “appalling” basic facilities, it is unimaginable how dire the current state of these refugees is. Media coverage of the conflict has largely focused on casualties and the future of Libya’s electoral plans, however it is essential that greater attention is given to the thousands of refugees and migrants who are currently left in limbo. Further investigations must be made into why the European Union-backed coastal guards are sending Libyan refugees back into conflict ridden areas, and how these refugees can be registered and relocated before further lives are lost without record.