Libya conflict threatens the most vulnerable

Among the many trapped by the fighting are thousands of refugees and migrants

Libyan displaced family members, who fled their house because of the fighting between the Eastern forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar and Internationally recognised government, sit at Bader School, which is used as a shelter, in Tripoli, Libya April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
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Almost two weeks have passed since Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar began his march on the Libyan capital, and his forces are now just 11 kilometres from Tripoli’s centre. In that time, more than 170 people have been killed and 750 wounded in fierce fighting around the city. Field Marshal Haftar reportedly expected a swift victory over the weakened government in Tripoli, but his Libyan National Army (LNA) has been stalled in Tripoli’s southern suburbs by militias loyal to Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj. With both sides deploying air strikes, tanks and artillery fire, thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Libya has been in a state of perpetual chaos since Western bombardment facilitated the removal of its long-time ruler Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Field Marshal Haftar’s assault on Tripoli has brought international attention to Libya, but the nation has been in the grip of a civil war for years. There is a need to solve the government dysfunction and limit the worrying role of militias in the country.

As The National reported on Wednesday, the UN Security Council is considering a draft resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Libya and callling on Libyan forces not to destabilise the country. This is the UN's strongest action to date, and resolutions adopted by the council are legally binding. Now, serious action must be taken to secure Libya. In a joint statement released earlier this month, France, Italy, the UAE, the UK and the US said: "We stand united behind UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) Ghassan Salamé as the UN seeks to break Libya's political deadlock, improve transitional governance, and chart a path toward credible and peaceful elections."

According to the International Office of Migration, 18,250 people have already fled their homes in Tripoli, where combat has disrupted electricity and phone lines and triggered water shortages. But a particularly vulnerable group is trapped amid the fighting. In recent years, Libya has become a key stopover for refugees and migrants making the journey to Europe. There, thousands have been detained and subjected to grim treatment. In the past fortnight, the UN refugee agency has rescued 300 refugees from detention centres near the frontline. However, more than 2,700 refugees and migrants still linger in detention centres, defenceless and terrified. Protecting these people – who sought only a better life for themselves and their families – is a global responsibility. It is also one that European powers have continually abdicated. Of the 70 migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard on Thursday and brought to the island of Lampedusa, 17 are Libyans fleeing conflict. And yet, Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini has already vowed to send them back. Deploying migrants as blackmail, Mr Al Sarraj has warned that continued fighting could make 800,000 flee to Europe. It should, nevertheless, spur European nations, including Italy, into humanitarian action.

Weeks ago, Libyans were awaiting a UN-led conference to draft a roadmap for nationwide elections. Now, they must contend with the threat of war. The future of Libya’s 6.4 million people – and the thousands of migrants and refugees trapped within its borders – looks less secure by the day. The international community must now step in to help stabilise Libya and live up to its responsibilities.