Recent investigations from Euronews into the work of the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, in Libya has revealed a culture of neglect. The UNHCR, which claims it can only register asylum seekers and refugees originating from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia, is under fire by human rights activists for its operations in the Northern African state. The UN successfully brokered the Libyan Political Agreement in 2015, but since then militias have remained at battle across the state.
The UNHCR’s mandate is to find a safe solution for refugees. Therefore, the UNHCR’s main mission in Libya is to register people as refugees and find a solution to evacuate these people out of the country and into a safe space. The EU Trust Fund for Africa counts on the UNHCR to ensure that asylum procedures and policies are in line with human rights standards.
Many refugees and migrants seeking asylum end up in militia-run detention centres with little to no help from the UNHCR. Since September 2018, six detention centres in Libya have been involved in militia clashes, causing refugees and migrants detained to seek safety again. Abdelnaser Mbarah Ezam, a Captain at the Ministry of the Interior, Government of National Accord in Libya told Euronews that many migrants in these centres are suffering from depression after believing that registering with the UNHCR would guarantee them acceptance into Europe.
Euronews spoke directly with many refugees who witnessed and suffered human rights atrocities in these camps, while registered with the UNHCR. Testimonies included instances of abuse, torture and extortion. Libyan coastguards automatically re-incarcerate anyone found trying to cross the Mediterrean, due to provisions under an EU and Libyan agreement signed in 2017. One detention centre, Zintan, reported 700 human beings crammed in one room without access to adequate food or water. This included approx 120 minors. Since September 2018, twenty-two people in the centre have died of TB.
Protests at Zintan in June 2019 have included refugees showing banners stating “We are victims by UNHCR in Libya” and “We are abused by a human rights organisation”.
A whistleblower who previously worked for Libya’s UNHCR agency told Euronews that the UNCHR resembled “ an agency overstretched and out of its depth, with asylum seekers left homeless, deprived of medical care and in legal limbo in an increasingly violent and unstable Libya”. The whistleblower also detailed cases of UNCHR staff accepting bribes from refugees in a (failed) effort to speed up their asylum claims. Additionally, an internal audit found that the UNHCR in Libya had purchased laptops at inflated prices (eight laptops for just under $50,000) and spent almost $200,000 on flights without making use of competitive bidding.
According to Euronews, refugees were paying money to get inside the UNHCR’s Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) in Tripoli. One refugee awaiting evacuation explained: “The guards who are working at the gate, brought inside Somalian and Eritrean women; they paid 2000 dinars (around 430€) each. We told this to UNHCR, and they asked us not to tell anyone.”
Investigations like this one in Libya should lead to government action and justice for the victims impacted.
Browse more stories below or sign up to our newsletter to receive our top news straight to your inbox!