Refugees seeking shelter in Libyan capital fear for their safety

A member of Libyan security forces is seen shoving a Sudanese refugee in Tripoli in a video shared online. (@Sudan_Asrf/Twitter)
A member of Libyan security forces is seen shoving a Sudanese refugee in Tripoli in a video shared online. (@Sudan_Asrf/Twitter)

Refugees in the Libyan capital were chased away from a building belonging to the United Nations High Commissionner for Refugees by security forces in late June, videos posted online show.

The refugees, mostly Sudanese, had been displaced by the Libyan civil war and were living in a school in Tripoli until it was taken over by armed groups.

On Twitter, Sudanese users shared videos that showed Libyan security agents driving the group away from a building described as belonging to the United Nations. 

In one video, a Libyan man is heard shouting, "I'm not going to tell you one by one... get out!" He is seen shoving a refugee as he says, "There's no one here, there's no more High Commissionner."

The same man is seen in another video shouting at a Sudanese man lying on the ground and pretending to kick him. “Get out, go f*** yourself! Aren’t you ashamed to be sitting like that in front of the building and then you tell me you are filming! Go and f*** yourself and your camera, too! If you didn’t have a child with you, I’d have f***** you over, I would have crushed you.”

The refugees were among a group of around 150 people from Sudan, Eritrea and Iraq who had been living in the Ahmed Ben Chatwan School since April. The Libyan Red Crescent, a branch of the Red Cross, manages the school while the UNHCR provides medical care and counseling. 

Libyans and refugees from neighboring countries in Tripoli have been caught in the conflict between government forces led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and rebel groups under the command of Khalifa Haftar that seek to take over Libya.

“We didn’t feel safe in the school”

A man who had been living in the school since May and who wanted to be identified only as Hussein for security reasons said he and his family feared for their safety when armed groups arrived. 

Things went very well at school during the first month, but we eventually began to feel unsafe. On June 30, there was a disagreement between an Iraqi father and son, and the head of the Red Crescent. That night, some police officers entered the school and took the pair to the local police station. After that, we started seeing armed men in civilian clothes patrol the school. The head of the Red Crescent told us we had to leave or she would have to evict us by force.

We were afraid and we left because that wasn't the first time we'd seen militia men in the school. They drive into into the school courtyard and fire bullets into the air. We even saw weapons being exchanged between two cars. We didn't feel safe in the school anymore.

Tarik Argaz, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Tripoli, confirmed to the France 24 Observers that a dispute involving an Iraqi had taken place at the school and that the police had been called. "Refugees living in the school reported that an armed group, not the police, was present and explained that they no longer felt safe," Argaz said. 

The refugees then went to a community day center run by the UNHCR, which they mistakenly took for UN headquarters and where the videos were taken.

"A temporary solution that persists"

Argaz said the UNHCR likely did not offer to help the refugees because the day center was not equipped to house people. 

The UNHCR and its partners offer refugees basic medical assistance, and transfer them to other centres if necessary, as well as psychological and financial support. 

When the group of refugees from the school arrived, the staff felt that there was a risk for other refugees who were waiting for an appointment, who had been threatened by neighbors with guns. 

The man who is chasing the refugees away in the video isn’t a member of UN staff. We haven’t been able to identify him yet. The refugees have taken shelter in an empty warehouse as they wait for a more permanent solution. The UN is currently in discussions with Libyan authorities to find a solution as quickly as possible.

Refugees have taken shelter in an empty warehouse. (Photo: Hussein) 

The group sleeps on mats on the floor and rely on neighbors' generosity for food, Hussein said. The refugees were also interviewed by UNHCR representatives shortly after moving into the hangar.

Displaced migrants in Libya are, like locals, subject to violence in the region. On July 3, a migrant detention centre was bombed in Tajura, a suburb of Tripoli, leaving at least 53 people dead and 130 injured.

This story was written by Sarra Grira.