Nine weeks on from the confirmation of Libya’s first case of Covid-19, the pandemic has yet to bring about waves of patients in respiratory distress to the country’s hospitals. Nor has it increased the mortality rate in the country’s infamous detention centres, where hundreds of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees endure arbitrary and indefinite detention in dire living conditions.
Calls for a ceasefire to allow for proper Covid-19 planning have been ignored. Fighting has only intensified in and around Tripoli, with indiscriminate shelling and deadly attacks on residential areas and health facilities.
Great caution is warranted in Covid-19-related forecasts for Libya. But essentially, what I have seen so far while managing Medecins Sans Frontieres operations in the country is that the pandemic – or, rather, the response to it – has made the daily struggles of Libyan civilians worse, and exacerbated the misery of migrants.
Already juggling with security constraints caused by the escalating conflict, we at MSF had to scale down our operations as airports and borders closed, hampering our ability to receive medical supplies and experienced international staff and to renew employee visas. It has also forced us to evacuate vulnerable workers.
Prior to the pandemic, the political constraints, security challenges and the paucity of international staff on the ground hindered the ability of humanitarian programmes to deliver assistance and protection to migrants in Libya, even when they were properly funded.
Today the situation is even worse, further exposing the flaws of international aid agencies helping Libya’s migrants. For some 1,500 people currently held in the detention centres nominally under the authority of the Libya’s Government of National Accord, despair has reached a new high.
UNHCR evacuation flights and repatriation services run by the International Organisation for Migration have stopped in the wake of coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Overcrowded detention facilities with poor sanitation and ventilation are prone to spreading diseases – as shown with previous tuberculosis outbreaks. This leaves migrants with little hope for escaping abuse and violence.
The coronavirus outbreak in Libya has resulted in higher prices and a shortage of basic foodstuff, causing mounting concerns over provisions in detention centres, where we provide medical and psychosocial assistance.
Despite the situation, the World Food Programme has thus far not provided direct food aid in these centres, as doing so would reportedly infringe its opposition to arbitrary detention.
This position reflects a general trend among international humanitarian actors who have adopted a very principled approach to detention. While we do not condone the arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees, we also have to acknowledge the reality on the ground.
Now is not the time to abandon those held in Libya’s detention centres to their fate. For more than three years, we have witnessed just how important it is to ensure a physical, regular presence in detention centres, not only to improve living conditions and provide medical consultations, but also to advocate on behalf of migrants who are locked up indefinitely and to expose the inhumanity of their situation.
The vast majority of migrants, including those who were released or escaped from detention centres in recent months, live in Libya’s main cities. They are exposed to arbitrary arrest and detention, robbery, kidnapping, abuses or worse.
While early preventive measures like curfews, lockdowns and border closures have helped to contain the spread of Covid-19, they have also further disrupted an already fragile economy. Above all, it has significantly undermined any migrants’ ability to work.
Combined with the rise in food prices and other essential goods such as hygiene products, the situation has become increasingly desperate. MSF teams are receiving an unprecedented number of calls from migrants, many of whom were formerly held in detention centres and are now left with no food or money for rent. Restrictions on movement have also fuelled fears of arrest, ransom or kidnapping if they step outside.
Support provided by international aid agencies to migrants and refugees in urban settings outside of detention centres mainly consist in one-off relief packages that are subject to cancellation due to security and access challenges in a city at war. Designed partly to compensate for the closure of a UNHCR flagship facility in Tripoli last January, and also to accommodate refugees and migrants released from detention centres, the urban setting approach trumpeted by UN agencies is inadequate in the absence of meaningful protection and shelter services. It relies on the support of migrant communities already struggling to survive.
Migrants and refugees are pushed underground, out of sight and out of reach. Most initiatives to set up shelters supervised by international organisations have proven unsuccessful as negotiations between humanitarian organisations and the GNA have dragged on with no tangible outcome.
These shelters where people can feel safe and live decently while they await evacuation are needed now more than ever. The evacuations organised by the UNHCR were the only effective protective measure for migrants, but it only benefited a fraction of stranded refugees. Others are left with no other choice but to take to the sea.
Just as ambulances continue to carry the sick and injured to hospital despite the lockdown, so should evacuation flights from Libya continue to operate as an emergency lifeline. Upon arrival to safe third countries, migrants can then be quarantined to contain the risk of coronavirus infections.
When it comes to taking action for migrants and refugees, diplomats and UN representatives alike keep giving us the same answers: “There is very little we can do; we have no leverage”. Since 2015, the EU has, however, mobilised over €500 million for migration-related projects in Libya, largely channelled through UN agencies, alongside years of harmful policies aimed at keeping people away from Europe at any cost.
The situation requires a radical change. At the very least, we must make the protection of migrants and refugees trapped in Libya an international priority. Covid-19 is a real threat, but the solution must not be worse than the disease. This is particularly true for stranded migrants further exposed to violence in the coronavirus era. We must unlock this deadly stalemate by restarting and scaling up humanitarian evacuation mechanisms.
Sacha Petiot is head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Libya