Coronavirus narrows options for migrants buffeted by Libya's war

CAIRO (Reuters) - After several failed crossings from Libya to Italy and a long spell in detention, Nigerian migrant Olu had pinned his hopes on being evacuated from the besieged city of Tripoli with his family.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants queue as they wait to receive food, donated by a charity, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the holy month of Ramadan in Misrata, Libya May 4, 2020. REUTERS/Ayman Al-Sahili

Instead, with refugee resettlement disrupted and air space closed against the new coronavirus, he found himself stranded in the Libyan capital as the 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. But there are fears it could have a devastating impact if it takes hold.

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

Restrictions on movement are driving them further into hardship.

“For the past two months I have not been able to work,” said Olu, 38, who has been 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 cobbled together enough money for rent and food with transfers from friends and a cash handout from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. But casual labour is still hard to find after a 24-hour curfew was relaxed late last month, and he is worried those funds will run out.

“If I lose this apartment I’d be out on the street and I’d be exposed to this deadly virus,” he said by phone from Tripoli. “So it’s very 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.

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

But in the past three years, crossings dropped sharply due to EU and Italian-backed efforts to disrupt smuggling networks and to increase interceptions by Libya’s coastguard, a move condemned by human rights groups.


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

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

About 25 migrants had to return to a coast guard vessel to avoid the shelling, before being disembarked and taken to a detention centre that is not under government control, the International Organization for Migration said.

One Eritrean migrant in detention in Zawiya, west of Tripoli, said he was sleeping in a hangar with about 230 people, including some suspected to have tuberculosis. Those who could not afford to bribe guards were kept in a separate, permanently locked hangar, he said.

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

Aid agencies that struggle to operate in a country dominated by armed groups are finding it harder to trace returned migrants after they disembark.

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

UNHCR had been evacuating or resettling some of the most vulnerable refugees until airspace was shut in early April.

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

He worries that with the loss of livelihoods due to coronavirus, more will attempt sea crossings.

“People are getting desperate,” he said. “We are concerned that some of them will ... put their lives at risk on the sea.”

Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mike Collett-White