As Libya crisis deepens, UNHCR chief steps up assistance

During a visit to Tripoli, Filippo Grandi says agency needs to increase its presence in the North African country where 1.3 million people need urgent humanitarian aid.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi at the Tariq al-Sikka detention facility in Tripoli on May 21 2017.  © UNHCR/Iason Foounten

TRIPOLI, Libya – In response to Libya’s growing humanitarian crisis stemming from conflict, insecurity, political instability and a collapsing economy, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is discussing options to step up its presence and programmes in the country.

This was announced by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, during a visit to Tripoli on Sunday (May 21), where he met with government officials and visited a detention centre holding refugees and migrants.

“I was shocked at the harsh conditions in which refugees and migrants are held, generally due to lack of resources,” Grandi said. “Children, women and men who have suffered so much already should not have to endure such hardship.”

“I was shocked at the harsh conditions in which refugees and migrants are held.”

More than five years of violent upheaval in Libya began with the uprising that removed ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Some 300,000 Libyans have since been displaced by ongoing conflict. In all, more than 1.3 million people, including the internally displaced, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and host communities are now in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. 

UN refugee chief, Filippo Grandi, in Libya

Continuing instability, coupled with Libya’s location, have energized smuggling rings that prey on mixed flows of desperate refugees and migrants seeking to cross north over the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, a journey during which at least 1,364 men, women and children have died or gone missing this year.

Grandi saw at first-hand the impact of the crisis at a detention centre in Tripoli, one of dozens in the country where many of those rescued after attempting perilous Mediterranean crossings end up.

Grandi also met with senior government officials in Tripoli on the one-day visit, including the Ministers for Education, Migrants and the Displaced and Social Affairs, to discuss what practical steps can be taken to tackle the growing crisis.

“We are already providing help on the ground and we will be doing much more.”

UNHCR will also continue its close partnerships with the International Organization for Migration, or  IOM,  and other humanitarian agencies in Libya to help the authorities better manage refugee and migrant flows through the country – something Grandi says is key.

“We are already providing help on the ground and we will be doing much more,” Grandi said. “But these patterns of migration we are seeing are very complex – and tackling the root causes, like poverty, is key. We also need to strengthen ways in which transit countries manage flows. People are ending up here because of a variety of problems elsewhere.”

Since Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011, hundreds of thousands of people in Libya have been hit by the collapse of law and order, inadequate health care and a lack of essential medicines, food, safe drinking water, shelter and education.


A group of people gather inside a detention facility holding refugees and migrants in Tripoli, May 2017.  © UNHCR/Iason Foounten

“We should not underestimate the challenges of operating in an unstable and volatile environment such as Libya today,” Grandi said.

“Our ability to access and effectively deliver much needed protection and assistance is a constant challenge. The people we are trying to help, as well as my staff and all the other humanitarian workers, live and work under enormous strain and risks.”

In addition to new offices and community development centres for refugees and asylum seekers, UNHCR intends to scale up its presence in disembarkation points for people rescued or intercepted at sea, in close cooperation with IOM and other partners. In the last year and a half, UNHCR has been able to secure the release of more than 800 vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers.

The High Commissioner was accompanied to Tripoli by his newly appointed Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation, Vincent Cochetel, who will be coordinating UNHCR’s cross-regional response to the complexities of mixed migration movements across the Mediterranean, and by UNHCR’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Amin Awad.