Following weeks of conflict in western Libya United Nations agencies have been working around the clock to meet the urgent needs of more than 14,000 refugees and migrants held captive at numerous locations in Sabratha, west of Tripoli.
“The refugees and migrants were taken to a hangar in the Dahman area in Sabratha that has been serving as an assembly point since the onset of the crisis,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva.
From the hangar in Sabratha they are transferred to official detention centres for humanitarian assistance by Libyan authorities, who estimate an additional 6,000 migrants and refugees remain captive by smugglers. If confirmed, it would bring the total number held to 20,500 – including those in official detention centres.
“As a priority, UNHCR teams are working on identifying refugees and continue to advocate for their release. In some locations, UNHCR provided tents for makeshift hospitals where UNHCR doctors provide medical assistance,” Mahecic said.
“Colleagues on the front lines describe a picture of human suffering and abuse on a shocking scale,” he added, noting rescued refugees and migrants are visibly traumatised – most say they were subjected to abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence, forced labour and sexual exploitation.
He pointed to “a worrying number of unaccompanied and separated children, many under six,” saying many report losing parents on the journey to Libya or in the chaos of the last few weeks.
While UNHCR works closely with authorities to respond to growing needs, the scale of the emergency has overwhelmed existing facilities and resources. Detention centres and assembly points are at capacity and lack basic amenities, like water tanks and sanitation facilities. Many people, including children, sleep outside.
“The devastation in Sabratha further reaffirms the need for international action and highlights the price refugees pay to reach safety in the absence of safe legal pathways. UNHCR will continue to call on resettlement countries and the international community to step forward and open more resettlement places and look for a way to protect vulnerable refugees who need international protection,” Mahecic said.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) provides support to those in Zuwara and the Sabratha assembly point in the form of core relief packages, which include mattresses, blankets, pillows and hygiene kits at six separate locations and more than 100,000 meals.
The migrants are from almost a dozen nations and IOM reports that out of 1,631 interviewed, 44 % wished to return to their countries of origin through IOM’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return Programme. To this end, IOM has provided online consular sessions for 332 migrants to speed up travel document issuance procedures.
The UN migration agency advocates for alternatives to detention.
“We are concerned about the large number of migrants transferred to detention,” Othman Belbeisi, IOM Libya Chief of Mission, said adding “they are overcrowded and do not meet minimum international human rights standards”.
“We stand ready to provide any support needed to Libyan authorities in providing alternatives to detention, especially for the most vulnerable, including pregnant women and children,” he said.