Trapped in transit: The neglected victims of the war in Libya

On April 19th 2011, 760 migrants have arrived from Libya after travelling for three days.
Photo: Mattia Insolera

Brussels/Geneva – As fighting continues to force civilians out of Libya, the international medical humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) calls the countries engaged in this war for a stronger humanitarian response and more effective protection for the people who are fleeing the conflict.
In a briefing paper released today, entitled “From a Rock to a Hard Place: The Neglected Victims of the Conflict in Libya”, MSF highlights the consequences of poor reception conditions and insufficient protection in the countries where they have sought safety.
Over 600,000 migrants have crossed Libyan borders since the beginning of the war. If many have already been repatriated to their country of origin, thousands are still stranded and continue to arrive in transit facilities in Tunisia, Egypt, Italy or Niger.
In Shousha camp in Tunisia, some 4,000 people – mainly Sub-Saharan Africans – cannot be repatriated, primarily due to dangerous situations in their countries of origin. In the meantime, 18,000 people have landed on Italian shores since the beginning of the conflict, risking their lives in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats in a bid to flee the war.
Since February, MSF teams have provided more than 3,400 mental health consultations to people fleeing the conflict, both in Italy and Tunisia. Staff have heard numerous stories from patients of their migration journeys in search of a better life. Some had already been victims of violence in their home countries, while many faced extremely dangerous situations on their way to Libya. A number of people suffered various traumatic experiences in Libya itself: they fled NATO bombings, were targeted or held in Libyan jails and detention centres – as a result of lacking the right documents, or of being ‘pushed back’ when they tried to reach Europe.

A boat with medical supplies is being offloaded in the port of Misrata.
Photo: Alan Lefebvre

As their freedom of movement is severely limited, confinement in transitory camps and reception centres is tantamount to detention. “The process of determining who qualifies for asylum in Italy is extremely lengthy and many people express total desperation at the idea of spending months or even years in these centres”, says Francesca Zuccaro, MSF’s head of mission in Italy.
In Shousha camp, living conditions are inadequate for a long-term stay and safety has become a growing concern, as demonstrated by the violent clashes in the camp in May. The violence exacerbated widespread feelings of despair amongst those in the camp. Some have left the camp to attempt journeys across the Mediterranean sea, risking their lives in the hope that their reception will be better in Europe.
“As they have no prospects in sight, dozens have gone back to Libya in the past days, ready to risk their lives again in a desperate search for a future. This is an extremely worrying situation,” says Mike Bates, MSF’s head of mission in Tunisia.
By invoking the fight against illegal immigration, European states risk denying the protection and humane treatment that these people deserve, condemning them to a situation of uncertainty which increases their suffering. The influx of people arriving by boat on Italian shores does not constitute ‘illegal immigration’, but a flight towards survival, safety and protection.
MSF reminds all belligerent parties and neighbouring countries of their responsibility, under international law, to keep their borders open and offer protection to those fleeing Libya and to ensure that poor reception conditions and lack of protection in no way hinder refugees and asylum seekers from seeking safety. 

Find out more about MSF in Libya

Audio slideshow: From hell to limbo (Photo's by: Mattia Insolera)