Sitting under the shade of a tree in a small courtyard close to their home in southern Tripoli, Abdulmajeed and his wife Halima, refugees from Darfur, fuss over their newborn daughter.
Little Afnan was born in April, when COVID-19 restrictions were at their tightest. Strict curfews meant they were unable to leave their home to go to hospital, and in any case, they could not have afforded the taxi fare. “We didn’t even have one dinar,” Halima said.
Instead, she had to give birth at home – a two-room prefab container – with the help of her husband and 13-year-old daughter. “Life in Libya is very difficult for refugees,” said Halima, who was smuggled into the country with her elder daughter and husband in 2017 and held in different smuggling and trafficking camps before the family found their feet.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, life has got tougher for the family. Abdulmajeed has not been able to find work during lockdown. He is a day labourer, mostly unloading fruit and vegetables at a nearby wholesale market, but, he adds, is willing to do any work. Before the pandemic, he could earn between 40-50 Libyan dinars a day (around US$10), enough to get by.
"I can't sleep at night."
“This corona thing turned everything around. There’s no work anymore,” 34-year-old Abdulmajeed said. “We haven’t been able to pay rent. Sometimes, we can’t afford even to buy food to eat. I can’t sleep at night. I’m always thinking: ‘When will this corona end, so I can go out and work?’”
Friends and sympathetic neighbours have helped out, but the family’s biggest concern is the rent. They are now three months’ in arrears and terrified they will be evicted. They have borrowed some money, and sold off Halima’s gold jewellery as well as a gas canister for cooking, but it is still not enough.
Recently, the family were among the first to be assisted through a joint project by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the World Food Programme (WFP) to provide emergency food aid to up to 10,000 refugees until the end of this year.
The programme was set up in response to the dire situation that already-vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in Libya are now facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most refugees in Libya live in urban areas, relying on daily labour to support themselves. But most of this work has dried up in the last few months because of tight restrictions on movement.
On top of that, the price of food items and other basic goods has risen dramatically due to border closures, import restrictions and disrupted movement of food supplies due to conflict.
The cost of a minimum expenditure food basket that would meet a family’s basic needs has increased by an average of 26.6 percent since the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions in March. Many refugees say that they are only able to afford to eat one basic meal a day, with fruit, vegetables and meat considered luxuries.
"Now, if we are hungry, we get to eat."
“We didn’t have anything at home ... I didn’t have any food,” said Halima, as she started to make lunch for the family using tuna and tinned beans from a box that is part of the food aid provided by UNHCR and WFP, designed to last a month. “Thank God for this,” she added, pointing to the box of food. “Now, if we are hungry, we get to eat.”
Before receiving the assistance, Halima said she would often feel dizzy and tired. Her main concern now is how they will manage to deal with unpaid rent. “The rent issue is difficult. Even if we are forced to leave here, we don’t have money to rent another place; it’s a problem. If they remove the curfew and my husband can work, then there will be no problem … we can live like before.”
Each day, Abdulmajeed puts on a shirt and baseball cap and heads out in search of work. The last paid work he managed to find was over a week ago. The bad news is that COVID-19 cases in Libya are still on the rise, with the authorities recently recording the highest daily increase, making it unlikely that curfews will be scrapped any time soon.
Halima’s long-term hope, like many other refugees in Libya, is for a better future outside the country. One, she says, where her children can live in peace and safety and get an education. “I hope they have a happy life. That they live in a better situation than this,” she said.