Hundreds of asylum seekers detained in Libya after the closure of the UN refugee center

Libyan security forces carried out a brutal operation in the early morning hours of January 10 and arrested hundreds of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who had camped in front of a UN refugee center in the Libyan capital Tripoli since October 2021.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center, which is considered a “one-stop-shop” for migrants in Libya, was closed just before the operation, leaving hundreds without opportunities.

Following a similar brutal police crackdown in October 2021, thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – most from sub-Saharan Africa – had slept poorly outside the UNHCR Community Day Center (CDC) in Tripoli. They had gathered in protest and demanded protection and evacuation to a third country.

The protest ended on January 10, when the CDC was officially closed, a month after the UNHCR announced that it would be closed due to the growing crowd in front of the building’s entrances, making it increasingly difficult to operate and provide services. Migrants say the move has left countless people stranded and unaided.

Despite this, more than a thousand people continued to sleep outside the center’s doors until the security forces carried out a violent evacuation in the early morning hours of January 10, where hundreds of migrants were arrested and taken to a detention center.

“They told us we only had 10 minutes to leave, otherwise they would take us to the detention center”

Yambio David Oliver is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from South Sudan who has been in Libya for three years. He posted videos and regular updates about the event on his Twitter page Refugees in Libya.

The evacuation started around midnight. Police and vehicles arrived in different groups and made some suspicious movements around the neighborhood. Then it created tension because people were scared. They blocked the exits to the street that reached the CDC. They also blocked the passage for the Libyan citizens, there were no cars passing by – only military vehicles. People began to protest.

Ante presence is heavy near the CDC’s headquarters in front of the Peaceful Commission for Refugees Libya from 103 days. We do not know if we will be on the day or we will be evacuated. pic.twitter.com/JbTRSWU9xe

– KONDA (@ KondaAdam1) January 9, 2022 A video published on Twitter on January 10, 2022 shows the street in front of the UNHCR center when the police blocked off the entrances.

A clear picture of the CDC before the violent raids on innocent refugees shows that the DCIM chief Mej. Alkhoja led the team himself. We urge @hrw @amnesty @govly_en to bring the major human rights violator like Alkhoja to justice. release all prisoners. pic.twitter.com/tPwGXScxXU

– Refugees In Libya (@RefugeesinLibya) January 11, 2022 A video posted on Twitter on January 11, 2022 shows Libyan security forces talking to migrants after blocking the street in front of the Community Day Center. The migrants and the asylum seekers began to sing in protest.

The police forces approached the demonstrators. Community leaders for the protesters spoke to them and exchanged a few words. They told us we only had 10 minutes to go, otherwise they would take us to Ain Zara prison camp. In this debate, we tried to understand who was responsible for this evacuation. If the UNHCR were responsible for the decree that we would be evacuated, if temporary accommodation were to be provided, we would go. But if not, we would not go, unless UNHCR staff were available to give us some confidence.

Migrants’ confidence in the Libyan security forces has waned for months. On October 1, 2021, security forces carried out a brutal operation in the municipality of Gargaresh, located several kilometers west of Tripoli and known for having a large migrant population.

The security forces claimed to be fighting drug trafficking and crime and forcibly arrested 4,000 people, killing seven people and destroying several homes.

>> Read more on The Observers: ‘It was scary’: Thousands of migrants arrested in Libyan security forces raid

“Armed guards fired into the air and fired at people and tore apart tents”

These are the same people who arrested us in Gargaresh. So we negotiated the situation, but the refugees and asylum seekers came out in large numbers and tried to condemn all use of force, with signposts and chanting “Evacuation, evacuation” and “Freedom” and “Security”. In the midst of this, tensions rose and the armed guards fired into the air and fired at people, tearing down tents. They started kicking people and hitting them with guns [Editor’s note: The Middle East Eye reported that several people were killed in the incident, according to eyewitnesses, and that medical teams had treated at least one person with a gunshot wound].

In this process, a few people managed to escape and those who were on the run were shot by the Armed Forces, which was part of the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration [Editor’s note: the Libyan security agency which manages detention centres for migrants, accused of arbitrary detention practices by the UN]. These people gathered, they were beaten, the women were fired. They were forcibly packed in buses and then taken to various places, some to Ain Zara and other concentration camps.

In the midst of this violence, there were people who had nowhere to go, so they tried to go and jump into Libyan houses because we were surrounded by civilian homes. In Libya, in almost every house, someone has a gun. So they were afraid they would be shot. Some of us managed to escape arrest.

More than 1,000 people were picked up by police on January 10, said Yambio David Oliver. He managed to avoid being deprived of his liberty by hiding in a nearby home until today. After the operation, tents in front of the UNHCR office were burned and destroyed.

At least 600 people were taken to the detention camp in Ain Zara, south of Tripoli. Some of those arrested had “stab wounds, bruises and [were] separated from children, ”said Doctors Without Borders told the Middle East Eye.

Videos posted on Twitter show the overpopulation in the center. According to Oliver, the migrants imprisoned there face difficult conditions, including lack of food and clean water, toilets and blankets.

An absolutely inhuman situation in Ain Zara now. Hundreds are kept in a hangar in a place that is not suitable for their livelihood. Even when cattle are camped, they always have a place to drop their own manure and a space back and forth. Unlike our innocent refugees, they are nothing @hrw pic.twitter.com/vJpLPMaF7Y

– Refugees In Libya (@RefugeesinLibya) January 10, 2022 A video posted on Twitter on January 10, 2022 shows people being trapped in Ain Zara’s detention center after being arrested by security forces.

Many of the migrants who camped in front of the UNHCR demanded to be evacuated to third countries. Evacuation flights from Libya for asylum seekers resumed in October 2021, after being suspended for several months. Since then, Niger, Gambia, Italy and other countries have allowed entry for asylum seekers who have asked to be evacuated from Libya, citing violence, torture and abuse.

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