One hundred days of refugee protest in Libya
Refugees in Libya rebelled in the face of widespread detention, abuse, and murder. The UN turned away, and then the crackdown came
For about 100 days, thousands of refugees staged a protest campaign in Tripoli until it was violently ended in January 2022 by Libyan security forces. Calling for protection from abuse and their evacuation to safe countries, the refugee protestors’ manifesto states that they “had no other choice than start organizing ourselves. We raised our voices and the voices of the voiceless refugees who have been constantly silenced. We cannot keep on going silent while no one is advocating for us and our rights.” Despite their struggle for visibility, most mainstream media outlets failed to acknowledge these mass protests and their political significance.
The protests began last October when Libyan authorities conducted large-scale raids against refugee communities in Gargaresh, a neighbourhood of Tripoli. Over 5,000 people, among them many minors, were arrested and forced into detention centres. A week later they rose in rebellion. While hundreds managed to escape, armed security guards opened fire killing six and injuring dozens.
Many of those who escaped joined a protest camp outside the UNHCR Community Day Centre that had formed in response to the raids. With their homes and temporary shelters destroyed by the Libyan authorities, the protestors had built minimal infrastructure themselves to sustain their campaign. First hundreds, then thousands, joined.
Raids, mass detention, murder, torture, rape, and forced labour are everyday experiences of marginalised refugee communities in Libya.
Collectively, the refugee protestors created a long list of demands addressed to the Libyan authorities, the UNHCR, and the EU. They ranged from evacuations, safety, and the closure of detention centres to Libya recognising the 1951 Refugee Convention and the EU ending support for Libyan militias. These armed groups have intercepted over 32,400 individuals trying to escape Libya across the central Mediterranean Sea in 2021 alone.
Many of the protestors have survived unimaginable hardship. Raids, mass detention, murder, as well as systematic forms of abuse, including torture, rape, and forced labour, are everyday experiences of marginalised refugee communities in Libya. For years, numerous international organisations have denounced the ‘hellish’ conditions in Libya, the inhumane treatment, and the systematic incarceration of people on the move. To date these condemnations have changed nothing.
When the UNHCR shut its doors
The protestors chose the site of the UNHCR building strategically, hoping that it would offer some protection from the Libyan security forces. The UNHCR, however, was dismayed at the protest camp outside its doors. It announced that it was “suspending the services at Community Day Centre due to the security situation” on 7 October and later closed the place entirely. In response, the protestors moved outside the main UNHCR office in the neighbourhood of Sarraj, which quickly put its activities on hold as well. The EU Head of Delegation to Libya, Sabadell Jose, voiced concern about the “situation outside” the UNHCR building and called upon the “Libyan authorities to ensure security & to protect people & premises”.
The refugee protestors felt abandoned by the UNHCR and feared that the suspension of its services would render them increasingly vulnerable to the violent Libyan security forces. They were particularly dismayed that the UNHCR repeatedly drew distinctions between protestors, on the one hand, and vulnerable individuals on the other. For example, one UNHCR statement said: “We call on protestors not to block vulnerable asylum-seekers, including women, children, from accessing premises for help.” And they were at a loss when the UNHCR called on protestors to disperse and to “respect Libyan laws and regulations” – laws and regulations that had never protected refugees from systematic oppression or their shelters from destruction. Besides, where could they even disperse to?
A refusal to submit
Undeterred, the protestors remained on site and used their social media account Refugees in Libya to report on tactics of intimidation by authorities and the UNHCR. They rejected the UNHCR’s attempt to divide them and worked together to build up the infrastructure of their collective struggle. They held large assemblies where discussions were translated into several languages. Multilingual committees also emerged around particular tasks, including political campaigning and negotiations, media work, cleaning of the camp site, mediating between protestors, and organising medical care.
The protest campaign of the refugees in Libya echoes other recent collective mobilisations, such as Lampedusa in Hamburg or the acts of resistance at Choucha refugee camp in Tunisia. Further mobilisations are currently emerging, such as those outside the UNHCR’s offices in Zarzis and Medenine in the south of Tunisia.
In order to produce and circulate information and updates on their struggle, the refugee protestors in Libya launched a website and a Twitter account seeking to reach an international audience. Under the hashtag #EvacuateRefugeesFromLibya, the demands of protestors reverberated beyond Libya, especially in Europe where solidarity activists took to the streets to highlight that Libya’s migration governance was inextricably also a European affair. While much of the mainstream media failed to report on these transversal struggles, forms of international solidarity multiplied.
This potentially transformative movement shattered on 10 January 2022 when Libyan security forces violently arrested more than 600 people and detained them in the Ain Zara detention camp. The demands of the protestors were left unanswered. Unable to reach any of its goals, hundreds of protestors found themselves detained once more.
The protest camp is no longer but it has created a lasting memory, and refugee mobilisations will continue. As subjects ‘out of place’, refugee protestors launched a collective struggle by generating new political spaces, mobilising new collective formations, and by articulating demands that could not be contained within established legal and political boundaries.
The struggle will leave a legacy. As one of the refugee protestors told us: “The protest has not ended. People continue to protest even inside the prisons. Those who are outside continue the protest as well. We are dedicated, we connect our fates to this struggle.” In February, detainees in the Ain Zara camp launched a large protest, with some going on hunger strike.
“Children aged five”, one protestor said, “cross their arms as a sign of resistance, of strength, of solidarity. The struggle has not ended, and they will not be able to silence this movement anymore.”
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