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Libya: A crisis within a crisis

22 Jun 20

Libya: A crisis within a crisis

Libya is facing a crisis within a crisis. Ongoing armed conflict, increasing indiscriminate attacks on civilians and a collapsing healthcare system have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19 and a reduced humanitarian presence due to travel and security restrictions. These could soon lead Libya into a humanitarian catastrophe. 

The current situation is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, including internally displaced people, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  

Despite the Berlin Conference in January and calls by the UN in April for a 'Humanitarian Pause' to give the country space to respond to COVID-19, the conflict in Libya continues to rage, with ground clashes, aerial attacks and indiscriminate shelling.  

Conflict in Libya

Since the conflict started in April 2019, tens of thousands of Libyan families have been displaced, dozens of civilians and health workers have been killed and many health facilities have been damaged or destroyed.

Vulnerable groups such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have been caught up in this chaos, unable to escape from Libya.   

As the humanitarian situation for these vulnerable groups deteriorates, the capacity for humanitarian organisations and the Libyan authorities to respond to their growing needs continues to decline.

This is due to the on-going conflict and COVID-19 travel restrictions and curfews, both of which prevent medical and humanitarian personnel from freely accessing and supporting them. 

The ongoing travel restrictions have also led to the suspension of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) evacuation flights, closing off another vital escape route from Libya.

Deadly sea crossing

For the 700,000 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya today, the only option left through which they can escape is the extremely dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean, which has already claimed 339 lives in 2020.

Yet, there is now very little search and rescue capacity left in the Central Mediterranean, and many migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are intercepted by the Europe-supported Libyan Coastguard and forced to return.

According to the UNHCR, between January and June 10th, 4,231 people were intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard, which the UK has supported through the EU. They were forcibly returned to the same dangerous conditions in Libya from which they fled. 

UK must end support

As a matter of urgency, the UK must end its support for arbitrary detention in Libya. All 1,500 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants currently being held in detention centres should be released and provided protection and safe shelter.  

The British government must also work to secure the immediate humanitarian evacuation from Libya of vulnerable refugees, migrants and asylum seekers exposed to the most imminent life-threatening risks, including those trapped in urban settings.  

The UK also needs to increase its commitment to safeguard and protect vulnerable migrants, refugees and asylum seekers by providing essential humanitarian support and services wherever they are in their journeys. 

As a new immigration bill passes through parliament, now is the time for the government to take meaningful action to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya by ensuring that there are safe and legal pathways for people trapped there to reach a place of safety. 

MSF in Libya

Libya remains fragmented by conflict and fighting continues in several parts of the country. The breakdown of law and order, the economic collapse and the existence of three governments has had a severe impact on the healthcare system.

Almost all the men, women and children who attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea have passed through Libya.

Teams who worked on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean heard accounts of the alarming levels of violence and exploitation people experienced in Libya at the hands of security forces, militias, smuggling networks, and criminal gangs.

We run mobile clinics in migrant detention centres located in and around Tripoli. Medical complaints are mostly related to appalling conditions inside the dangerously overcrowded detention centres: lice, scabies and flees are rife and significant numbers of detainees suffer from nutritional deficiencies and the lack of safe drinking water.