Refugees and asylum seekers sheltering in a center run by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Libya’s capital are reportedly being starved out by the UN agency. According to the International Organization for Migration, a group of around 400 people, of which 100 are minors, have not received food assistance for several weeks. They arrived at the shelter facility in October 2019 from a detention center in the south of Libya notorious for subjecting detainees to forced labor, beatings, torture and extreme sexual abuse.
Documents reportedly show that UNHCR also intends to withdraw food supplies from another 600 refugees and migrants in the center, many of whom have experienced forced labor and other human rights abuses. A majority have already attempted to cross into Europe and have been returned to Libya by the EU-backed coastguard – that’s why we are calling on the EU to immediately cease its funding of the Libyan coastguard and break this cycle of exploitation.
An internal document recently shown to UN staff highlighted that UNHCR would “phase out” food assistance in the center from December 31, 2019 with a view to the facility ceasing its function as a transit center until the remaining refugees and migrants “vacate voluntarily”.
The Guardian reports:
An aid worker with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “They are starving the population inside the [facility]. They’re just trying to starve them to motivate them to leave. It’s deliberately withholding aid to put people under pressure.”
One Tajoura survivor told the Guardian this week that if they are forced to leave and fend for themselves in Tripoli “it will be a very dangerous scenario”. Refugees are frightened of forced recruitment by militias, being caught up in the ongoing civil war, or being kidnapped anew by traffickers. Others who have taken a UNHCR offer of money, in return for living alone in Tripoli, say the payments are not enough and they remain in danger. One Eritrean man recently released from Triq al Sikka detention centre was shot last week by men in police uniforms who, he said, were trying to rob him.
“Still now they didn’t give food. I think it is [on] purpose?” an Eritrean refugee in the facility messaged The Guardian this week through WhatsApp. “Everyone is suffering and stressed and we have all decided to stay here until they use force, because being returned to a detention centre means again facing trafficking, torture and abuse. [We have] no option until UNHCR gives us a positive response. Even if they leave we will stay here. We have no option, we will not go anywhere. There are no safe places in Libya at this time.”
Once UNHCR stops using the center for its intended purpose, documents seen by The Guardian suggest that Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration may convert the facility into a detention center or “forcibly remove” all remaining refugees and asylum seekers to other detention centers.
This is an alarming decision for the UN agency to be considering taking into account the litany of human rights abuses, including forced labor, reported as commonplace in detention centers in Libya.
UNHCR has not responded to requests from The Guardian to comment on reports that they are withholding food from refugees and asylum seekers.