Coronavirus limits migrant options in Libya

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After several failed crossings from Libya to Italy and a long spell in detention, Nigerian migrant Olu had pinned hopes on being evacuated from besieged Tripoli with his family.

Instead, with refugee resettlement disrupted and air space closed against coronavirus, he found himself stranded in the Libyan capital as war intensified, unable to work because of restrictions linked to the pandemic.

So far, there are no reports of the virus spreading among migrants in Libya. There are fears it could have a devastating impact if it takes hold.

Libya has an estimated 654 000 migrants – more than 48 000 registered asylum seekers or refugees – many living in cramped conditions with little access to healthcare.

Restrictions on movement drivr them further into hardship.

“For the past two months I have not been able to work,” said Olu (38) living in a single room in Tripoli with his wife and five children since his release from a migrant detention centre in February.

He has enough money for rent and food with transfers from friends and a cash handout from the UN refugee agency. Casual work is hard to find even after a 24-hour curfew was relaxed last month and he worries funds will run out.

“If I lose this apartment I’d be on the street and exposed to this virus,” he said by phone. “It’s scary now.” He declined to give his family name for security reasons.

African and Middle Eastern migrants have long come to Libya seeking jobs in the country’s oil-powered economy.

As the country slid into conflict after a NATO-backed uprising in 2011, smugglers put hundreds of thousands in boats and sent them across the Mediterranean to Italy.

In the past three years, crossings dropped due to EU and Italian efforts to disrupt smuggling networks and increased interceptions by Libya’s coastguard, condemned by human rights groups.

ROCKETS

Those intercepted by the coastguard are detained in centres nominally under control of government or left to fend for themselves.

Migrant detention centres have been repeatedly hit during fighting. Last Thursday a volley of rockets landed on the Tripoli seafront, near a naval base where migrants disembark.

About 25 migrants returned to a coastguard vessel to avoid shelling, before disembarking andgoing to a detention centre not under government control, the International Organisation for Migration said.

An Eritrean migrant in detention in Zawiya, said he was sleeping in a hangar with 230 people, including some suspected to have tuberculosis. Those who cannot afford to bribe guards are kept in a separate, permanently locked hangar, he said.

“We don’t have enough food. We have 24 TB patients. We don’t have precautions against coronavirus,” he said in a text message.

Aid agencies struggle to operate in a country dominated by armed groups find it harder to trace returned migrants after disembarking.

“It seems there are fewer people in detention,” said Tom Garofalo, Libya country director for the International Rescue Committee. “The question is where are they going and we don’t have the answer so that’s distressing.”

UNHCR was evacuating or resettling some most vulnerable refugees until airspace was closed in April.

The agency, which closes a transit centre in Tripoli in January due to interference by armed groups, is handing out cash, food and hygiene kits. Payments are hampered by a long-running liquidity crisis at Libyan banks, said UNHCR’s Libya mission head, Jean-Paul Cavalieri.

He worries with the loss of livelihoods due to coronavirus more will attempt the sea crossing.

“People are desperate,” he said. “We are concerned some will put their lives at risk at sea.”