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A new sense of freedom: Some 200 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya released from detention

19 Jun 2020

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Mohammed goes through precautionary COVID-19 measures before receiving relief supplies, including hygiene items and food. He was released from detention a few days prior. Credit: OCHA/Jennifer Bose Ratka

By Jennifer Bose Ratka, OCHA Public Information Officer

“I feel much better outside of detention,” says Mohammed,* who recently left a detention centre in Zawiya in north-western Libya after spending three years locked up. “We were beaten and treated very badly inside the detention centre. We ran away four days ago and, to our surprise, they let us go.”

Mohammed made his way to Tripoli by taxi, which cost him about 100 Libyan dinars (about US$71). His friends helped him cover the fare. “I would like to educate myself and work in the agricultural sector. But I know this is still a distant dream,” he says.  

Mohammed left his home, parents and four siblings in Eritrea in 2017 and crossed Sudan’s border  to arrive in Libya after two tiring days of travel. Libya was never meant to be his destination; he had left to seek a better future in Europe. But like many other refugees and asylum seekers, this is where his journey has ended for now.

He is among some 200 people who have been released from the Azzawiya detention centre.  Food shortages, lack of drinking water and several incidents of physical abuse have been reported from the centre.

About 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers remain in Libya. Many of them – particularly those in detention centres and conflict-affected areas – face arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, forced labour, extortion and exploitation.

While the former detainees are happy to have been released, many still do not feel safe. “I am scared. The police could come at any time and take us back into detention,” says Yusuf, an Eritrean asylum seeker, as he waits in line at a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) distribution in Tripoli.

Yusuf waits in line to receive his medical check. He fled from Eritrea to Libya to provide for his family back home, including his 6-year-old son, whom he has not seen in more than three years. Credit: OCHA/Jennifer Bose Ratka

In the Serraj Centre, asylum seekers such as Yusuf are registered, and receive medical check-ups and certificates of identity. Relief items, such as hygiene kits and food assistance, are also provided to them..

Yusuf’s eyes look tired and signs of exhaustion are written all over his face. His voice starts to  break as he speaks about his family. “I have a 6-year-old son. I have not seen or even spoken to him in three years,” he says. “I have no means to communicate with  my family,” he adds, while trying to control his tears.

Distribution of relief supplies at UNHCR’s Serraj Centre, where more than 170 refugees and asylum seekers received aid after being released from detention. Credit: OCHA/Jennifer Bose Ratka

Still threatened

Apart from being separated from their families and enduring harsh living conditions, refugees and asylum seekers are also being affected by COVID-19 and other diseases. Such diseases pose a real threat in congested detention centres and to the refugees and asylum seekers who often live together in crowded housing to split the cost of rent.

Ababa, who left the Azzawiya detention centre a week ago, says, “I used to sleep in one room with 250 other people in the detention centre . Now I live in an urban shelter and share my room with 10 other people. It is not so much the coronavirus that is affecting us, but many of us got sick with tuberculosis. Just last week, four people were taken to the hospital.”

According to UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, more than 2,000 people remain in 11 official detention centres in Libya. However, many others are thought to be detained in sites to which aid agencies do not have access. The release of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in the past year into urban settings has been an opportunity to step up the response and continue advocating with the Libyan authorities for alternatives to arbitrary detention.

As part of its Ramadan assistance, UNHCR provided emergency distributions to more than 8,000 people, mostly refugees and displaced people, while aid agencies have reached at least 138,000 people with assistance since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Libya. Despite ongoing conflict, Libya remains a destination country for refugees and asylum seekers from many neighbouring countries. While their release from detention may not end the challenges they face, it is a sign of hope.

Almost 1 million people in Libya need some form of humanitarian assistance this year. Of them, 345,000 people have acute needs and have been prioritized under the 2020 Libya Humanitarian Response Plan. Migrants and refugees have been identified as the largest group in need, hence they constitute the largest group prioritized for assistance in the plan. More funding is needed to respond to their needs. The 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan, including the Health Sector COVID-19 response plan, requires US$130 million. To date, only $36 million has been received, 28 per cent of the request.

Name changed to protect identity.