Hundreds of migrants have been camping out in front of the UNHCR offices in Tripoli since early October to demand their evacuation from Libya. On Sunday violence broke out, but it is unclear who started it.
The situation in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in Tripoli is worsening. For the past two months, hundreds of migrants, including women and children, have gathered in front of the organization's premises to demand their immediate evacuation from Libya and resettlement in a third country. Many are asylum seekers or refugees.
In their provisionary encampment in front of the center of tents made of pieces of cloth or cardboard, these migrants spend all their time on the sidewalks of Tripoli near the wall of the UN agency, also called CDC for Community Day Center. This center was forced to close its doors at the beginning of the movement, in early October, due to the influx of too many people.
Their living conditions have become even worse in recent days with the arrival of the winter's chill and heavy rainfall that has flooded their makeshift homes. To try to keep warm, some migrants have lit fires with small pieces of wood found in the vicinity.
"The conditions here are extreme," reports one migrant from the protest, and these conditions are testing the resilience of those gathered. They are also being tested by "the lack of solutions offered" by the UNHCR.
On Sunday, December 5, the migrants were demonstrating "peacefully," they say, in front of the organization's building to "keep up the pressure" and "ask to speed up the processing of resettlement cases," Ousmane, a 27-year-old Sudanese man who is participating in the protest, tells InfoMigrants.
During the rally, violence broke out. It is difficult to know exactly what happened, as versions differ somewhat. According to the UNHCR, some unidentified people lit a fire dangerously close to the center. "The police came to put out the fire and they were targeted with stones", thrown by the demonstrators, claims the head of mission of UNHCR in Libya Jean-Paul Cavalieri in a video. "This violence is unacceptable," he adds.
'UNHCR is lying'
The migrants, on the other hand, have a different account of what happened. "The UNHCR is lying, they have no proof of what they are saying, even though there are surveillance cameras [in front of the center, ed.] Why don't they broadcast the images?" says a migrant in English in a video posted on the Refugees in Libya Twitter account, which has been reporting on the situation in front of the center since the beginning of the protest.
According to the migrants, the police arrived and tried to extinguish a makeshift fire they had themselves lit to help them fight the cold. The police then arrested some of the migrants and were reportedly violent.
"There is no conflict in the accounts," said Caroline Gluck, Senior External Relations Officer of the UNHCR Libya Operation, speaking with InfoMigrants. "A fire was lit by demonstrators at approximately 08.30 Sunday morning outside the entrance of our main office at Serraj."
"The Libyan Diplomatic Police, which is mandated with providing security to UN and diplomatic buildings, came out of the building entrance to extinguish the fire. The situation became tense, with a few individuals among the protestors attacking the police officers with stones and an altercation broke out between the two sides," continued Gluck.
Violent beatings with batons
In footage shot outside the UNHCR premises and posted on Twitter by the migrants, men in uniforms with jackets marked "police" can be seen violently beating migrants with batons or sticks. Some are brandishing knives and weapons.
"What happened is a violation of our rights. We just ask for protection and respect", insists a migrant.
In addition, a six-year-old girl from Sudan is in hospital after she was hit by a car. This is not the first time that a person has been involved in such an accident in front of the center. At the end of October, an Eritrean man was taken to hospital after a road accident.
At the same time, several people were injured after being beaten by UNHCR security guards, according to the migrants. On October 12, a Sudanese man was shot and killed a few meters from the center.
UNHCR confirmed that humanitarian flights did resume out of Libya in November, with the first evacuation flight to Niger in more than a year taking place at the end of the month. "On November 25, there was an evacuation flight to Italy under a new mechanism that combines emergency evacuations with humanitarian corridors. This was the first of five planned flights," confirmed Gluck.
"We hope to organize two more evacuation flights before the year’s end (including one later this week)," said Gluck. "In addition, we are continuing to organize resettlement flights out of Libya. More than 1,000 people had been in a pipeline awaiting flights out of Libya which had been blocked for most of the year, until the Libyan authorities announced they would allow the resumption of humanitarian flights in late October."