‘Live free or die trying on the sea’: Limbo in Libya for unregistered refugees

Lack of registration by UNHCR or authorities ‘makes it harder to ensure people are safe’

On Monday, hundreds of refugees and migrants in Tripoli's Abu Salim detention centre felt a glimmer of hope.

After months of waiting to be recognised and registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), staff had finally arrived, along with representatives of various other UN agencies, including the World Food Programme and the International Organisation for Migration, which helps migrants from countries deemed safe to return home to.

“We hope, pray for us, to register,” one Eritrean messaged on WhatsApp, using a phone he has managed to keep hidden.

Instead, the visiting officials proceeded to stand in front of the detainees and bicker among themselves as to which organisation had been delivering the most aid, according to several people who were there.


“They are still playing games with us by fire,” the Eritrean messaged again after the officials had gone. “They just leave for us sadness, stress and hopelessness.”

Sharp focus

Fighting began in Tripoli on August 26th between armed groups battling for control of the city, and the vulnerability of migrants and refugees held in indefinite detention across Libya was thrown into sharp focus. An estimated 8,000 were being held in "official" centres in the capital alone, mostly after being returned to the country by the EU-backed Libyan coast guard, which intercepted them trying to escape to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea.

The problem is that the numbers in detention centres vary every single day. There are transfers between detention centres

As the conflict continued, detainees were abandoned, moved, kidnapped by traffickers, or forced to leave the centres and take their chances on the streets. It also became clear that the lack of a comprehensive registration system meant hundreds or even thousands could be disappearing.

UNHCR says it aims to register all refugees from the seven countries Libya recognises as producing them: Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria and Palestine.

However, in Abu Salim detention centre, asylum-seekers from those countries carried out a poll for The Irish Times of how many people had been registered since they were returned to Libya, and found more than three-quarters had not been. Of 329 Eritreans, 255 said they were unregistered; 51 of 64 Ethiopians were unregistered; and 10 of the 17 Sudanese. Of the 17 children, at least nine had not been registered either, according to their poll.

Some of them have been waiting as long as eight months, they say, and protests pushing for the UNHCR to visit have led to detainees being shot or tortured by Libyan guards.

Speaking to The Irish Times, UNHCR external relations officer Paula Barrachina Esteban said eight months sounded too long to wait to her, but, "We register to our capacity. We have a registration schedule that we use and we do register in due course."

Esteban said she does not know how many refugees with genuine cases remain unregistered in Libya. “The problem is that the numbers in detention centres vary every single day. There are transfers between detention centres. You might be moved because there’s a lack of space.”

She also said it depends on the access UNHCR has to each detention centre, which varies day by day and week by week. “We do have regular access but it doesn’t mean that we have access to all at the same time.”

Presented with the figures from Abu Salim detention centre, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, a humanitarian affairs adviser with MSF (Médecins sans Frontières), said she had heard similar accounts of a lack of UNHCR registration in centres across Libya.

“I fear that your very experience is actually emblematic of the situation. The accounts you were receiving sound similar to other accounts,” she said.

We know in detention systems there could be all sorts of abuses, including enforced disappearances of detainees

“I think it’s even worse outside of Tripoli because Tripoli is where you have the largest presence of UN and international agencies.

“What we have seen is a number of refugees who have been in detention centres for prolonged periods of time with no prospect of being released by authorities, with no due process and with UNHCR not going to the detention centre to register them. So the registration is the prerequisite for them to receive that protection they’re entitled to by international law.”

Third country

For genuine refugees who cannot return home, registration with UNHCR is the first step to being considered for evacuation from Libya or resettlement to a third country, including in Europe, though places are scarce.

Even inside the country, there are benefits to being registered. Hadj Sahraoui said the lack of registration by either UNHCR or the Libyan authorities makes it much harder to track people and ensure they are safe. “We know in detention systems there could be all sorts of abuses, including enforced disappearances of detainees.”

In Abu Salim, inmates remain terrified of being sold into slavery by the Libyans who manage the centre, or of being abandoned and kidnapped by traffickers. Earlier on Monday, the same day the UN visited, detainees – including seven pregnant women – had been threatened with weapons after drunk militiamen turned up at the detention centre early in the morning.

“Everybody has lost hope,” one Eritrean said by message. “[People here] are saying we should live free or die trying on the sea.”

On Tuesday, the morning after the visit from the UN agencies, six Sudanese detainees escaped from the centre, telling friends it had cemented their belief that no one would help them any more. “This is a very, very sad story,” one of them messaged, before disappearing from contact.