What is happening in Tripoli is unprecedented. We have seen and heard of torture, rape, murder, arbitrary detention, and thin lines between authorities and traffickers. But for the last 28 days, there has been something else: thousands of refugees, tired of being subjected to all kinds of abuse, have self-organized and are fighting back.
After the October 1 round-ups in several districts of Tripoli that led to the detention of 4,000-5,000 people, refugees camped in front of the UNHCR in search of shelter. There they set up an assembly to make decisions and a coordination group with the media to make their voices heard. They want one thing only: evacuation to a safe country.
On Friday, from their permanent sit-in, with the help of Amnesty and Mediterranea, they held an online press conference to “break down the wall of silence.” Before Italian journalists, European activists and a bishop, they said: “We have no choice and we will resist until the last breath that we have … until every last one of us is killed in front of the city. We have nowhere to go. … We deserve to live. We have the right to life, we have the right to seek asylum because we have been forced to flee, we have the right to protection.”
During the speech by a refugee named David, originally from South Sudan, images of the sprawling camp were being streamed live from mobile phones: people crammed into makeshift tents, lying on beds on the pavement or leaning against the walls of surrounding houses.
“We have been forgotten here,” he said. He denounced the fact that since the beginning of the protest, the refugees have not received medical assistance or basic necessities. On Friday, there were 2,700, including 300 women and as many children. There are no bathrooms, and the hygienic conditions are getting worse. This creates tensions with the inhabitants. Among the Libyans, only a few understand and support them.
On Wednesday evening, a militia car drove over a 17-year-old Eritrean boy, crushing him. The injured young man was taken unconscious to a clinic and then to Tripoli’s central hospital, where he died. He is the second victim since the protests began. On October 12, a 25-year-old Sudanese man was killed in the crowd by masked men. On October 23, the Libyan reporter and photographer Saddam Alsaket disappeared after a report on the protests.
The protesting refugees have survived the circles of hell that surround their lives in Libya: detention, torture, flight, attempts to cross the sea, interception by the so-called “Coast Guard,” detention again. After the round-ups at the beginning of October, the fear of ending up in prison or being killed in the streets has only increased.
The circle of suffering overlaps with the circle of responsibility. The Libyan authorities are the ones doing the dirty work: they capture the migrants and lock them up in centers. The responsibilities, however, lie on the other side of the Mediterranean: “The abuses we heard about are a consequence of the 2017 Italy-Libya agreements,” says Ilaria Masinara of Amnesty International.
On Wednesday, UNHCR’s special envoy for the central and western Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, echoed the protesters’ calls for protection and security in a tweet; however, he wrote that the UN agency cannot evacuate the 45,000 refugees stranded in the North African country. “It is up to the Libyan authorities to protect them in accordance with their international obligations,” he said.
It is precisely those authorities, however, that are putting them in danger. And not only because Tripoli has never ratified the Geneva Convention on refugees, but because the funding it receives from European Union countries is for the purpose of stopping the desperate people trying to escape, at any cost.
“Italy and Europe are responsible for this situation, and now they must respond by bringing to safety those who are risking their lives every day. The only solution is a mass evacuation from Libya,” concluded Luca Casarini of Mediterranea.