The Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing civil war in Libya have exacerbated the challenges faced by the country’s 600,000 mostly sub-Saharan and Asian migrants, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
More than 90 per cent of the migrants surveyed by the inter-governmental group have being severely affected by the pandemic.
Many have lost their already unstable and low-paying jobs, and face extreme challenges accessing food and healthcare. Others face eviction and arbitrary arrests or detention.
‘Many migrants in Libya have reported being abused, used as forced labour and exploited in horrific ways,’ said IOM spokeswoman Msehli Safa.
‘IOM staff are providing assistance to migrants across the country, including health assistance, provision of humanitarian items, and psycho-social assistance, as well as voluntary humanitarian return support.
‘However, more safeguards need to be adopted to end this cycle of abuse and exploitation,’ said Safa.
Most migrants and refugees in Libya are not held in government detention centres.
The majority, including many who made their way out of detention during the pandemic, live in Libyan cities, where they are exposed to threats of arbitrary arrest, detention, robbery, kidnapping, abuse and even murder.
In October, a Nigerian migrant worker was burned to death after three Libyans stormed a factory in the Tripoli neighbourhood of Tajoura, where African migrants were working.
Three other migrants suffered burns and were rushed to hospital.
‘We condemn this hateful and senseless crime,’ said the IOM spokeswoman.
‘Authorities announced the arrest of the three perpetrators. They must be tried and held accountable for the killing of this young man.’
Meanwhile, Sacha Petiot, Head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mission in Libya, said that for the 1,500 people currently held in the detention centres under Libyan government control, the plight of migrants is not much better.
Libya’s overcrowded detention facilities are prone to the spread of diseases, including outbreaks of tuberculosis (TB).
'And the halt of UN evacuation flights and IOM repatriation services due to Covid-19 travel restrictions have made it almost impossible for those that want to escape the cycle of abuse and violence to do so.
‘Migrants and refugees have been pushed underground, out of sight and out of reach,’ explained the MSF mission chief.
‘Most initiatives to set up shelters supervised by international organisations, for instance in Janzour, have so far been unsuccessful as negotiations between humanitarian actors and the Libyan authorities dragged on with no tangible outcome.’
The violence meted out to migrants may attract headlines.
Less reported, though, according to IOM, are the problems migrants face to survive, a problem that has been confounded by the pandemic.
The inability to afford healthcare, housing, water, sanitation and hygiene items were highlighted by IOM as being the primary challenges for migrants.
This is of particular concern as casual labour opportunities are dwindling and the unemployment rate is greater than prior to the pandemic.
Overall, 51 per cent of migrants interviewed reported that financial issues were among the three main issues they were facing at the time of the IOM survey.
Notably, the pandemic has exacerbated the fate of migrants and asylum-seekers attempting to reach European shores from Libya.
The Italian and Maltese authorities have both declared their own ports ‘unsafe’ because of the pandemic, preventing people who are rescued at sea from landing.
Libya authorities, meanwhile, have blocked disembarkations due to the heavy shelling that has been taking place around Tripoli.
And an estimated 9,500 migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean for Europe were returned to Libya this year, often by the Libyan coast guard, which received funding from the European Union to carry out ‘search and rescue’ missions in the Med.
Despite the challenges getting to Europe, many migrants continue to chance their luck – with just under 400 drownings reported in the first seven months of 2020.
However, the true figures may be much higher, thanks to the absence of state and NGO search-and-rescue operations.
The IOM spokeswoman said the situation in Libya – where warring parties recently signed a ceasefire – needs a radical change, with the protection of migrants and refugees trapped in Libya to be classed as an international priority.
‘Covid-19 is a real and actual threat, but the response can’t be worse than the disease,’ said Safa.
‘This is particularly true for stranded migrants, further exposed to violence in the new context created by the pandemic and with even fewer solutions to flee,’ said Safa.
‘The issue needs to become a real topic of negotiations to unlock the deadly stalemate, notably by restarting and scaling up humanitarian evacuation.’