On Tuesday hundreds of migrants were released from a detention center in southern Tripoli and escorted to the UNHCR-run Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) as heavy gunfire rang out across the Libyan capital. When the migrants arrived at the GDF, they were refused entry and forced to spend the night under the pouring rain, with police allegedly confiscating their mobile phones and banning them from making contact with anyone outside the group. InfoMigrants reports.
Between 200 and 600 migrants made their way to the UNHCR-managed facility on Tuesday afternoon after walking out of the Abu Salim detention center, which is located close to the frontlines of Libya’s armed conflict. It was not immediately clear why the migrants were released from the center: While some migrants told InfoMigrants that it was because of their frustration with the increasingly poor conditions within Abu Slim, others said they were seeking a safe haven as the fighting near the centre had intensified.
While the UNHCR estimated the group to total 200, local police set the number at 410 and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) at around 600.
But when the migrants arrived at the GDF, none of them were let in, and were left to spend the night outside on the street. Video footage obtained by InfoMigrants showed the migrants, mostly men, sitting on the unsheltered pavement facing the GDF, many of them wearing nothing but sweatpants and hoodies to keep warm in the rain.
A Libyan police source told InfoMigrants by telephone that "the UNHCR's position is incomprehensible. Obviously they do not want to receive these people. We offered the migrants to take them to the railway centre [the notorious Tariq Siqqa detention centre; Eds note] but they strongly refused and said they would rather stay on the street than go there."
'No value for human life'
An eye-witness told InfoMigrants that the Abu Salim migrants were still blocked outside the GDF on Wednesday afternoon. He added that they were in “poor condition” and that no UNHCR of GDF representative had yet been out to speak with them.
The same witness said that the police guarding the migrants had confiscated their phones, and that they had been banned from contacting anyone outside the group. He also said they lacked all access to any sanitary facilities, leaving them to make do on the street, and had only been given one meal – bread and cheese – since they arrived.
“What a farce. What a humanitarian catastrophe. Four hundred people stay under the rain overnight without any cover. Where are the humanitarian organizations they are telling us about? Where is the international community?,” he said.
“There is no value for human life anymore. Even the Libyans passing by these migrants have not even given them a blanket to fight off the cold. We are losing it down here in Libya."
The UNHCR was not immediately available for comment, but in a statement on Tuesday, the UN agency said "some 200 migrants have arrived at the assembly and departure center in Tripoli ... The situation inside the center is very tense. UNHCR teams are consulting and looking for solutions for these migrants."
In a separate statement, the IOM said it was “concerned about their fate, especially as clashes intensify in the city," and that its teams were “working in coordination with UNHCR and WFP [the World Food Programme] to provide essential assistance and relief to Abu Salim migrants."
Hope to be fast-tracked
The GDF was set up last year with the mission of processing resettlement cases, and a lot of migrants hope that by registering with the center, their cases will fast-tracked. But many migrants have also fled to the center for their safety. The UNHCR’s Special Envoy Vincent Cochetel last week told Reuters that more than half of the 880 migrants currently staying at the GDF had entered “informally”, with many of them having arrived after a Tripoli detention center was hit by a deadly airstrike in July.
“Recently, the GDF has been severely over-crowded, leaving us unable to utilize it for its original purpose of evacuating people of out harm’s way," the envoy was quoted as saying.
On Wednesday afternoon, a migrant staying at the GDF told InfoMigrants that a Libyan migration official had finally met with the Abu Salim migrants and given them three options: to return to Abu Salim, to be transferred to the notorious detention center Tariq Siqqa, or to enter the GDF – but on the condition that they will not have any access to neither GDF food services nor sanitary facilities.
"They're in deep trouble, they don't know what to do," he said, noting that none of the alternatives were of any help to them.
Libya hosts some 640,000 migrants and is one of the main departure points for migrants trying to reach Europe.
Several thousands of migrants are currently held in detention centers which are officially run by the Tripoli government. In practice, however, the centers are controlled by armed groups and there is widespread abuse inside them, according to migrants, aid works and rights defenders.