UNHCR concerned on safety of asylum seekers in Libya

Thousands of refugees in Tripoli and Benghazi unable to leave to safer areas due to ongoing clashes

Detainees in Libya's al-Hamra migrant detention center, one of nineteen official detention centers where migrants and asylum seekers are held, near the town of Gharayan, crowd the entrance to the shipping container where many detained for months in April (2014 Daniel Etter/Redux)
Detainees in Libya's al-Hamra migrant detention center, one of nineteen official detention centers where migrants and asylum seekers are held, near the town of Gharayan, crowd the entrance to the shipping container where many detained for months in April (2014 Daniel Etter/Redux)

UNHCR said it is deeply concerned about the safety of refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya as violence escalates in the North African country.

Almost 37,000 people are registered with UNHCR in Tripoli and Benghazi, with many living in areas heavily damaged by fighting and unable to leave to safer areas due to ongoing clashes.

In the capital alone, more than 150 people from Eritrea, Somalia and other countries have phoned UNHCR’s protection hotline seeking help with medicines or a safer place to stay.

“We are also receiving calls from many of the mainly Syrian and Palestinian asylum-seekers and refugees in Benghazi who are in dire need of assistance.”

While noting its continuous collaboration with NGO partners on the ground to deliver assistance and advocate on behalf of refugees and asylum, UNHCR said the situation in Libya “is rapidly deteriorating and many see leaving Libya as the only option.”

“Amidst the growing lawlessness, the smugglers thrive and thousands of desperate people are taking the dangerous sea journey to Europe,” UNHCR said.

Some 88,000 people are estimated to have arrived in Italy by boat so far in 2014 – including 11,000 over the past fortnight – of whom about 77,000 are believed to have departed from Libya. This is already more than double the known number of crossings last year, when some 43,000 arrived in Italy, about half of them departing from Libya.

The UN agency said that recent fighting around Tripoli seemingly moved departure points away from the capital, with more boats now leaving from points to the east such as Al-Khums and Benghazi in the east.

UNHCR said it heard of a group of 500 Syrians leaving on three boats over the past week directly from Benghazi – a new and more dangerous departure point as it means a longer journey to Italy.

Over 1,000 people have died in the Mediterranean this year, with the latest casualties drowning last week off Al-Khums, about 100 kilometres east of Tripoli.

The 128 victims held mostly African nationalities and included many women and children. UNHCR, through its partner IMC, is providing medical care and relief items to the 22 survivors of the incident.

Meanwhile, UNHCR expressed its concern that not all people seeking safety can cross Libya's land borders and urges Libyan authorities to relax exit visa restrictions to allow people to leave.

“At the same time, we are asking the governments of Egypt and Tunisia to keep their borders open to those fleeing violence and seeking international protection.”

Meanwhile, around 3,000 Egyptian nationals a day have been crossing the Salloum border into Egypt over the past few days, most other nationalities have been unable to cross.

The agency said it is particularly concerned about the welfare of three Syrians and one Palestinian stranded in the no-man's land between Libya and Egypt and is asking Egyptian authorities for access to the group to provide food and water.

On the Tunisian side, UNHCR understands the border is generally open to Libyans, Egyptians who are returning home through Tunisia and other nationalities with valid travel documents and transiting through Tunisia. Some 30,000 people have crossed into Tunisia in the past week through its two border points with Libya, Ras Jedir and Dehiba, although reports indicate that the rate of arrivals has significantly slowed since yesterday. Aside from the Egyptians returning home, most of the people crossing to Tunisia seem to be Libyans with means who are not seeking humanitarian assistance, although smaller numbers are now receiving help from local NGOs.

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