‘It was terrifying’: Thousands of migrants arrested in Libyan security forces crackdown
Dozens of people, including women and children, have spent weeks sleeping rough outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Libya. Desperately seeking shelter, these families, who come from sub-Saharan Africa, fled to the offices on October 1, after Libyan security forces launched a brutal campaign targeting migrants. Fearing for their safety, they are asking to be evacuated from the country as soon as possible.
Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have been living in fear since this wave of raids and arrests began – especially those living in the Gargaresh municipality, located about a dozen kilometres to the west of Tripoli and known for its large migrant population. Security forces began a brutal operation there on October 1. Claiming to be “fighting against drug trafficking", security forces broke down doors and raided people’s homes, forcibly dragging residents out and even using firearms.
One person was killed during the operation and at least 15 people were injured, some of them sustaining gunshot wounds. A total of 4,000 migrants were arrested – most from Sudan, Eritrea or Somalia. Hundreds of women and children were also arrested.
'They loaded them into buses or pick-ups like livestock'
Samira (not her real name) is a 22-year-old student. She was born in Tripoli but doesn’t have Libyan nationality, because her parents are Sudanese. She says she has been living in a climate of terror since the operation began several weeks ago.
I live about ten minutes from the Gargaresh neighbourhood, where the arrests took place. It was terrifying. The anti-migration police [Editor’s note: Security forces who are officially part of the Directorate of Combatting Illegal Migration] and soldiers surrounded the neighbourhood. They broke down doors and forced people out of their homes, beating them. Then, they loaded them into buses or pick-ups like livestock. They also took their phones and any money they might have had.
Among the people who were arrested were my neighbours, who I’ve known for years, and pregnant women. The security forces made no distinction amongst the people they arrested – they even took people who had documents proving that they had submitted asylum claims or papers from the UNHCR proving that they had refugee status.
Most of the migrants who were arrested were stuffed into the Ghut Shaal detention centre, which quickly ran out of food and water because of the large amount of people being kept there.
A few days later, on October 8, security forces fired at migrants inside the detention centre, killing at least six detainees. In the ensuing chaos, hundreds of terrified people attempted to flee the centre. The vice president of the Libyan Presidential Council, Moussa al-Koni, apologised during a press conference on October 10 for these "unfortunate events to which migrants were victims".
In the face of this wave of mass arrests, many migrants gathered in front of the UNHCR office, hoping to find protection there. But the presence of the UN didn’t stop a group of men from beating and then shooting to death a Sudanese man named Amer Baker in front of some of the families who were camped there on October 14.
'One bit of hope is that humanitarian flights are going to start up again'
[On Monday, October 17], security forces shut down the main road in Gargaresh. I saw it all from my balcony. Over the past few days, the anti-migration police have been patrolling the neighbourhood non-stop. I saw police stopping residents and asking, “Are there foreigners amongst you?”
I was scared for my own safety, because my skin is black. My parents immigrated to Libya more than 40 years ago and I was born in Tripoli, but we still face all kinds of discrimination. I am not allowed to get Libyan nationality and I have a residency permit that I have to renew regularly.
After the wave of arrests on October 1, I didn’t stick my nose outside for a week because I knew that the police wouldn’t bother with details, they could easily throw me in prison without verifying my identity.
There is a bit of hope in all this. A combination of media coverage and pressure from human rights NGOs resulted in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announcing that they would start running humanitarian flights again for people who have refugee status [Editor’s note: The UNHCR has been evacuating people from Libya to third countries, via a program called the Emergency Transit Mechanism. The refugees are then given options, including resettlement].
Friends of mine, who are migrants, told me that they had received messages from the UNHCR telling them to be ready. The Libyan authorities had suspended humanitarian flights from Libya since August 8, with no explanation.
I really hope that evacuation procedures will speed up.
In a statement published on October 14, the UNHCR explained that, after Libyan authorities suspended flights, some resettlement countries decided that they could no longer receive asylum submissions from Libya this year.
“This will result in the loss of 162 places on direct resettlement flights and could jeopardize nearly 1,000 places through the Emergency Transit Mechanism, which provides vital respite in Rwanda and Niger for vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers while long-term alternatives are sought,” the UNHCR statement reads.