Thousands of migrants camped outside the UNHCR Community Development Center in Tripoli, Libya | Photo : Reuters
Thousands of migrants camped outside the UNHCR Community Development Center in Tripoli, Libya | Photo : Reuters

Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers, including women and children, were rounded up outside the former UNHCR Community Development Center in Tripoli early on Monday morning and taken to detention centers. Now aid groups are reporting serious violence and injuries took place too.

Early on Monday morning, January 10, more than 600 people, including women and children, were arrested and transferred to the Ain Zara detention facility, south of the capital Tripoli. Ain Zara already holds thousands of migrants and refugees in over-crowded cells.

The detainees, who are almost all from sub-Saharan Africa were rounded up by force on Monday at around 2am local time, after their makeshift tents were burnt down. Now, on January 11 aid groups are reporting that many suffered violence and injuries during the arrests too.

The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR Community Development Center in Libya's capital Tripoli shut its doors in December, leaving countless people homeless and without humanitarian assitance. Many lost all their belongings during the Libyan security operations, which were marred by violence leaving seven people dead. 

Following the closure of the CDC, run by UNHCR along with local partners, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers had been camping in front of the building taking part in a peaceful protest in order to ask for protection and to be evacuated out of Libya.

Violence against refugees and asylum seekers continues

On Tuesday, several humanitarian groups including the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), reported on the violence faced by those outside the CDC yesterday.

Thomas Garofalo, director of the ICRC, said: "Our medical teams have been supporting those injured during this morning’s arrests, including one person suffering from a gunshot wound."

A Twitter account calling itself Refugees In Libya, run by Yambio David Oliver, a South Sudanese migrant living in Libya, tweeted regular updates about what was going on too.

Some were cut with knives, some were traumatized from forced arrests, said Gabriele Ganci - Head of MSF in Libya.

"Among those [we tended to] were parents who had been beaten and separated from their children during the events [mass arrests two days ago]" said Ganci in a press release from MSF.

MSF stated that seven of those injured had injuries serious enough to require hospital treatment, while 190 were offered psychological support.

Inhumane conditions at Ain Zara

On Twitter, Refugees in Libya reported on the conditions inside the Ain Zara detention center. Videos taken inside the center showed hundreds of people packed into a single hangar.

MSF said they had been visiting Ain Zara for the last two months, via a weekly mobile clinic. They too confirmed that conditions inside the center were "over crowded." MSF have been operating in Libyan detention centers more generally since 2016.

A picture from inside the Ain Zara detention center in 2019 when UNHCR workers visited | Photo : Noor Elshin/ UNHCR
A picture from inside the Ain Zara detention center in 2019 when UNHCR workers visited | Photo : Noor Elshin/ UNHCR

Breakdown in trust between aid agencies and refugees

UNHCR has claimed that the CDC was closed due to security issues. They say that unrest was breaking out among those camping outside the center. But migrants who were there say they had gathered in front of the UNHCR-run center in the hope they would be protected from further raids by the Libyan authorities.

However, following a series of violent raids by Libyan security forces in October, many migrants and refugees now see the large aid agencies as complicit and ineffective in their failure to prevent further human rights abuses. This appears to have resulted in a significant breakdown in trust between international aid agencies and asylum seekers trapped in Libya. 

Alexandra Saieh, Libya advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told the Middle East Eye that "the operational environment for humanitarian agencies in Libya has been extremely difficult and it has become more difficult since the mass arrests in October."

Since the CDC's closure, UNHCR still provides assistance elsewhere in the Libyan capital. However, the UN agency has found itself in a difficult position, trying to operate within the restrictions imposed on it by Libyan authorities, while attempting to meet the needs of the migrant communities who are facing an increasingly dire humanitarian situation. In addition, European states are unwilling to facilitate safe passage towards the EU.

"UNHCR remains committed to supporting asylum seekers and refugees in Libya, including those who had been protesting," a UN spokesperson told the Middle East Eye "We had regularly engaged with protest leaders to understand the situation, clarify what UNHCR could and could not do, and to address their concerns and needs."

Deteriorating situation

Dax Roque, Libya country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has described Monday's events as "the culmination of a disastrous situation that has deteriorated over the last few months".

Last month, Mohamed al-Khoja, was confirmed as the head of the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), which runs the detention centers that hold many of the migrants and refugees in Libya. Al-Khoja is a former militia commander who previously ran Tripoli's Tariq al-Sikka prison, which has become notorious for reports of rape, beatings and extortion.

Ellen van der Velden - Operations Director for MSF said in a press release that Monday's violence shows again that Libya is a place "where migrants are subject to casual and arbitrary detention, even those who are requesting asylum or protection in line with humanitarian law."

Van der Velden continued, "once again we request the Libyan authorities to desist from mass arrests and offer dignified alternatives to detention. We are asking the EU to cease all support to this abusive and violent system of detention in Libya.


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