“You’re just not that vulnerable enough” – the situation of urban displacement in Libya


By Melissa Phillips, Senior Programme Officer, and Susanna Zanfrini, Protection Project Manager, Danish Refugee Council.

Working with asylum seekers and refugees in almost any location in the world involves juggling vulnerability with service availability, battling bureaucracy and bearing witness to remarkable people. Few situations we’ve worked in are as challenging as that of Libya. On the surface it is similar to many other countries in the region that have not signed the Refugee Convention, have no domestic asylum (or migration) legislation and offer no national refugee status determination (RSD) process. The national government is in transition and has no formal MoU with UNHCR.

Beyond these ‘ordinary’ challenges, Libya has a very ambivalent relationship with the asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in its territory who by some estimates number more than a million. They are both needed and undesired. Their role and number is misunderstood and the unique situation of each group is indistinguishable from the other in a discourse that focuses entirely on ‘migrants’. This discourse is perpetuated outside the country by the international media, donors and European governments who, with very few exceptions, misrepresent the complex mixed migration context in Libya as a simplistic scenario of ‘everyone’ wanting to come to Europe.

Let’s start with migrants: as a country with a relatively small population (around 6 million), a large territory and an oil-driven economy, migrants are found in nearly every sector of the Libyan economy. From domestic workers, to shop assistants and hospital workers, they bring technical skills and cheap labour that powers Libya’s economy. Most migrants originate from West Africa and they travel along historical slave routes, seeking permanent or temporary opportunities in Libya to work, earn money and remit funds back home as Danish Refugee Council’s recent survey of mixed migrants showed. Many were also used by under Gaddafi’s regime as mercenary fighters and the legacy of this role is one cause of the negative perception of migrants in post-Revolutionary Libya. Other issues that affect migrants, and refugees and asylum seekers are racism towards black people, fears about outsiders bringing diseases into the country and their ‘unauthorised’ status. With no asylum or migration procedures, most mixed migrants arrive without documents and are illegal inside Libya with no way to regularise their status.

Asylum seekers comprise a growing number of Syrians and Syrian Palestinians, drawn to Libya due to the ease of passage to the country and an initial hospitality shown towards them by the local community. They join older communities of Iraqis, Darfurians and other refugees who acquired refugee status before the Revolution. Refugees from Horn of Africa communities include Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis who flee to Libya for a mix of reasons. Having reached Libya, often with the use of smugglers, asylum seekers rent private accommodation that is usually unsafe, unsanitary and, in the case of Tripoli, on the outskirts of the city. Here they try to find daily labourer work to recoup their meagre resources and accumulate funds to pay for the boat trip to Europe, if that is their desired option. Others may be unlucky enough to find themselves in detention centres, where they are held on an arbitrary basis with no available process to have this decision reviewed. The only way out of a detention centre, which could be run by the government or a militia group, is to bribe your way out, have UNHCR attest that you are an asylum seeker, negotiate with your Embassy or be offered a work contract with an employer who will act as your guarantor.

Some people are automatically registered by UNHCR as asylum seekers due to their country of origin, others are considered on an individual basis. As we start getting into the inevitable ‘tiers’ of vulnerability, certain groups of asylum seekers are then able to access cash assistance from UNHCR on either a one-off or ongoing basis. Despite the multiple concerns raised by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) about the dire conditions of mixed migrants in Libya, there are very few NGOs operating here with funding for asylum seekers and refugees, and even fewer working with migrants. Each NGO carves up its pool of limited resources and sets guidelines and criteria for referrals; each considers its own mandate, donor guidelines and funding but what about the nexus between eligibility and vulnerability? Are efforts really meeting the most vulnerable or are we spreading ourselves so thin that we minimise any opportunity for impact or change?

‘They’re just not that vulnerable’ is a phrase we say to our colleagues over and over again each day. Of course as professionals we know that vulnerability criteria are important ways to prioritise cases and determine who is the most in need. But in Tripoli, as is well-known in many other urban contexts, the most vulnerable cannot even reach UNHCR offices. While UNHCR conducts outreach to detention centres and has registration missions to other locations, the most vulnerable remain hidden in their houses too afraid of being picked up at a checkpoint and detained to risk leaving. What might appear to be a simple taxi journey to an international organisation’s office can be dangerous for a black African who might be robbed, extorted or beaten by the driver. On a recent visit to an outer suburb in Tripoli we found a Somali woman who had given birth to her child with no medical assistance four weeks prior and was yet to have a check-up because she had no money for the taxi fare. Even she knew that in the vast sprawling city of Tripoli, going across town without any documents was an unwise move. As a result, services cannot reach the people most in need and vice versa.

Each international organisation has separate offices, in different parts of the city, requiring different referrals and so asylum seekers waste money and time travelling across town to get one piece of paper and then another. Ironically in this scenario the best served are in detention where international NGOs visit on a more regular basis. On the legal and policy framework front, three years since the Revolution, a draft Asylum Law remains in draft, much-hoped for policies and procedures remain just that … much hoped for. With no opportunities for resettlement, local integration impossible and return against UNHCR guidelines for most of these cases, it is little wonder then that our clients start to tell us “I am thinking to get the boat”. When we try to explain the risks and dangers of this option, we then get asked “well, how can you help me”. A pause often falls over the conversation at this point, we might mention “basic NFIs, basic health care, referrals for restoration of family links”. You can almost see the calculations starting to take place in a person’s mind. They are stuck in Libya, with no real prospects and the sea the only way out.

And people are taking the boats from Libya in unprecedented numbers. As recent Frontex data shows, the greatest increase in departures was from Syrians and Eritreans, with Somalis not far behind. This mirrors the profile of registered asylum seekers in Libya. People are also dying or being rescued at sea in higher numbers. Last year there was a huge outpouring of grief when hundreds of people died off the coast of Lampedusa. But such outpourings are meaningless when we are faced with the solutions and do nothing.

The situation of urban asylum seekers and refugees in Tripoli, and other major cities in Libya, is dire. The most vulnerable are falling between the cracks and others risk becoming more vulnerable the longer they stay in the city. Recently we met with an Ethiopian man and his wife, Steven and Grace (not their real names) living in one room they shared with another couple. They had no separate toilet facilities and the Libyan family they rented the house from warned them that if they made too much noise they would be evicted. Both Oromo, Steven and Grace fled from persecution in Ethiopia, and in Libya Steven had been detained and imprisoned. Grace is pregnant and about to give birth in a country where they have no future prospects. When the baby arrives, he or she will have no identification papers and Steven will have another mouth to feed from his only source of income – irregular daily work that brings in anything between 10-30 Libyan dinars a day (max 17euro dollars). As we discussed their situation, Steven said “I am just looking for a safe option, I’m asking you as a person, not just an NGO”. We continue to leave people like Steven and hundreds of thousands of other asylum seekers and refugees in Libya without an adequate response to their plight. Addressing their situation demands an urgent re-think of the presumptions we hold about supposed ‘irregular migrants’ and the services we offer to meet the needs of urban displaced.

Dated 02/03/2014

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  • Dale Buscher says:

    Thank you for the thought-provoking, if disheartening and disturbing, piece. The humanitarian community clearly needs to do a ‘re-think’ on how we define and use vulnerability criteria. We need better tools to assess needs, capacities and coping strategies and better guidance on how we can move from needs-based responses to resilience-building interventions.

  • Jeff Crisp says:

    This is a really informative article. Congratulations to the authors.

  • I agree with this, and I would like to open up the discussion on a few questions: what can be done concretely to improve the way urban displaced are protected in countries like Libya? Reading this article it seems that one of the very first things could be to better harmonise humanitarian organisations’ interventions and review vulnerability criteria. How could such a change happen? What would be the key elements that would enable such a change?
    When talking about the need of “better guidance” on resilience building interventions, where could such guidance come from? And what is still missing for such guidance to see the light? How to build resilience in urban contexts, taking into account the numerous challenges of such environments (in particular the risk of arrest and detention)?

    Anyone is welcome to participate to this discussion so feel free to jump in the conversation anytime. It is in my sense critical to share thoughts on best practice that could generate change here and now.

  • Melissa Phillips says:

    Thanks Jeff and Dale, appreciate your feedback and hope to keep the dialogue going.

  • Nyamori says:

    Indeed the article bring forth some of the challenges that are being faced by forced migrant and refugee around the world. This is not new in Kenya. If all the areas that mention Libya are replaced with Kenya..then the same will apply with minimal alteration. As a child protection practitioner, I can imagine the the kind of risk the unaccompanied and separated minors are faced with. There vulnerability is out of this world. I would challenged the organisation that work in Libya to try and adopt[t community oriented protection system. Since Libya is transitioning from an emergency situation, critical steps need to be taken to make the community aware and own the protection of refugee. Refugee protection committee can be set up and facilitated until they are are able to stand on their own. This model has worked well with my organisation in Nairobi. It can be said that new asylum seekers who arrive in Nairobi are always identified and assisted within days of arrival. All in all refugee protection is a challenging game. vulnerability criteria depends with who is offering the service!!

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  • Melissa Phillips says:

    Thanks Nyamori, it is good to know there are models out there to draw on. One challenge is the lack of domestic refugee law or any processes and systems in place in Libya. It makes it hard to empower asylum seekers and refugees when there is very little on offer. Hopefully learning from best practice in other places will improve the situation.

  • […] This guest post by Melissa Phillips, Senior Programme Officer, and Susanna Zanfrini, Protection Project Manager, at the Danish Refugee Council was originally published at  […]

  • I also appreciated this article and think it is of great concern that refugees and asylum-seekers are neglected as they are mixed in with migrants. A recent report commissioned by UNHCR’s office in Libya showed that the vulnerability was broken down along ethnic lines with sub-Saharan Africans being the most vulnerable. One of the recommendations was for livelihoods training for this group so that they were not as dependent on day laborer jobs.

    The report is
    Researching Refugee Dynamics, Southern Populations and Migration Dynamics in Post-revolution Libya and it is also on this site and

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