Concerns have deepened over the “truly catastrophic” threat the coronavirus pandemic poses to refugees and migrants in Libya, many of whom are victims or survivors of modern slavery.
The North African country, which has imposed a nationwide curfew and banned intercity travel to prevent the spread of the virus, has thus far reported 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with one death.
But with nearly a decade of conflict leaving both its government and its healthcare system in a perilous state, Libya is unprepared to fight a local outbreak.
The country is one of 27 that the Global Health Security Index last month declared “most vulnerable to emerging outbreaks,” and it is also considered high-risk by the World Health Organization (WHO).
With doctors and first responders often occupied by those wounded on the front lines of the war, and local healthcare workers already overstretched, experts argue the country will be unable to cope with large numbers of patients.
Libya’s vulnerability to coronavirus is especially dangerous for its migrants and refugees, many of whom suffer modern slavery among other “unimaginable horrors” during their time in Libya.
Migrants and refugees are often housed in crowded and unsanitary conditions and have little access to medical assistance—or even information about the virus at all.
Al Jazeera reports:
“Migrants and refugees [in Sabha, southwestern Libya] are in the dark and they don’t have access to information about the virus and how to protect themselves,” a Nigerian man in Libya said. “I discovered large numbers of migrants haven’t gotten the true picture.”
Another Nigerian man in Sabha said “the most vulnerable people will be in detention centres and in crowded places where they accept newly arrived migrants”.
“Those places are run by Libyans and the smugglers, not any officials,” he added. “These places are very crowded and unhygienic. If the epidemic happens, it will be disastrous. The Libyans know about the virus and have gloves and masks but they don’t give it to the migrants.”
Libya’s instability over the past decade has turned it into a major destination for migrants and refugees hoping to reach Europe. Many of those who attempt the crossing are intercepted and returned to detention camps.
11 “official” detention centers are reported to hold nearly 1,500 migrants and refugees, while illegal “private prisons” hold thousands more. In both, experts say conditions are “dire.”
Forced labor is so widespread in these centers, including those used by the Libyan coastguard, that some refugees and migrants have come to describe themselves as slaves.
The pandemic has meanwhile led to the suspension of humanitarian operations by many UN agencies and NGOs, cutting migrants and refugees off from aid just when they need it most.
Freedom United is currently fighting for Libya’s migrant and refugees with a campaign to end slavery in the country.
Many wealthy Western countries with strong, developed healthcare systems are struggling to cope with the virus, and victims of modern slavery are impacted everywhere from the United Kingdom to Bangladesh.
In a fragile country like Libya, the threat is even more extreme. Add your name today to help protect these vulnerable people.