Faced with the spread of COVID-19 following a long spell of detentions and numerous failed crossings from Libya to Italy, Nigerian migrant Olu and his family had hoped to be evacuated from Tripoli.
Nevertheless, they found themselves stranded in the Libyan capital as the conflict between forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) intensified.
To make matters worse, many migrants like him are unable to work because of restrictions on movement linked to the pandemic.
So far, there have been no reports of the virus spreading among migrants in Libya. However, observers and aid workers fear it could have a devastating impact if Covid-19 started affecting migrant communities.
According to several reports by international organisations, Libya has an estimated 654,000 migrants. According to the same reports, 48,000 of them are registered asylum seekers or refugees, with many living in harsh conditions.
“For the past two months I have not been able to work,” said Olu, 38, in an interview with Reuters. He has been living in a single room in Tripoli with his wife and five children since his release from a migrant detention center in February.
Despite scraping together enough money for rent and food thanks to transfers from friends and a cash handout from the U.N. refugee agency, casual labour is still hard to find given the government’s measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“If I lose this apartment I’d be out on the street and I’d be exposed to this deadly virus,” Olu added.
Migrants have historically come to Libya from the Middle East and Africa in search of jobs in the country’s petroleum economy.
As the country plunged into prolonged conflict after the NATO-backed uprising in 2011, smugglers have put hundreds of thousands of migrants in boats and sent them across the Mediterranean towards Italy.
In the past three years, crossings dropped sharply due to EU and Italian-backed efforts to disrupt smuggling networks and increase interceptions by Libya’s coast guards.
The latter has been a point of contention for international organisations who argue that Libya does not constitute a Place of Safety where migrants can be returned to.
In addition, the Libyan Coast Guard has been reportedly linked to the same smuggling networks and human traffickers that profit from migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the first place.
Moreover, migrant detention centres have recently been repeatedly hit in the fighting. Just last Thursday, several 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 center that is not under government control, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.
An 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 any precautions against coronavirus,” he said in a text message.
In a country controlled by armed groups, international and local humanitarian organisations 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 is evacuating or resettling some of the most vulnerable refugees until the airspace is closed in early April.
The agency is 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.
Cavalieri added that with the loss of livelihoods due to the coronavirus, more will try to cross the sea.