Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza
PH: Refugees In Libya

More protest at UNHCR’s headquarter in Tripoli: the fight for human rights in Libya continues

Interview to David Yambio, spokesperson of Refugees in Libya

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by Francesca Reppucci
Translation: Eleonora Diamanti

In December 2022, we met David Yambio during the event “Beyond and Against Borders”, hosted by the social center Bruno, in Trento. On that occasion, David shared with Melting Pot his experience as a person on the move, the torture and violence he endured in Libya, the various attempts to leave Libya and cross the Mediterranean, and how he decided to establish the Refugees in Libya protest movement.

Currently, the protests and mobilizations by Refugees in Libya have been ongoing for over 700 days, nearly two years. The political landscape has undergone several changes to which the movement has adapted, progressively taking on the role of a civil society observer of human rights.

In continuation of the previous interview, we asked David to describe the current situation of migrants in Libya and how the role of Refugees in Libya has evolved over the months 1.

David Yambio in Lampedusa, September 2023
David, can you tell us something about the current situation, the ongoing protest? How has the situation in Libya evolved from 2022 to the present? What has happened in the last year?

Thank you so much. I think that since last year, if we talk about the evolution of things, not  much has changed in a positive way. We see a continuous increase in human rights violations, but when it comes specifically to Refugees in Libya, I think that we have already had good achievements.  We have positive narratives that we can share. Since last year we have continued to increase our own visibility, to increase the rate of our campaign within Libya, outside Libya and also here in Europe.

Through our advocacy, one of the main goals of that time was to push for the liberation of the comrades who were detained in Ain Zara and this took us a really long way and involved a lot of people, a lot of activists, and several structural efforts. Until a few months ago, on the 11th of July, when they were released by the Libyan government. And then with the UNHCR, we also tried to push them to stand up and provide shelter to these people in different ways, even if it wasn’t through physical shelters but with material support for their needs. This is what has happened. Then, we have also seen an increase in the recognition by the Libyan institutions and then by the UNHCR, even including the European authorities.

During the crisis at the Tunisian-Libyan border, where people were dumped, we had developed really good contacts with the Libyans. In this sense, I think they were trying to say that Tunisia was trying to do something like that and they tried to use us and our platform to blackmail Tunisia in this sense.

On this point, I think we found it as a victory since they recognised us, the Libyan border guards sent us details and information on what was happening and told us to publish it. Not only that, I think that we have also managed to push for several developments, including the release of women who were detained in Abu Salim prison.

We published videos a few days ago [at the end of August], where a woman was shouting that they are closed in Abu Salim prison and that one of the females, whom she said was from Somalia, died and her body was lying there.

We tried to do several communications to the Libyan State and they responded, so today I received the very good news that these people have been repatriated; even if it’s not an entire freedom, of course they are still in the same circle, in the same dynamics within a country where human rights protection is not guaranteed in most of the situations.

We see it as one of the many positive narratives that happened and if we talk about individual cases, we have for example the story of Pato, the husband of Fati Dosso and father of Marie, who died at the border between Tunisia and Libya. When the pictures [of Fati and Marie] circulated, I think that for us being able to bring their identity together and to tell the world that they are people is already a positive narrative, because today we see that the Libyan State is cooperating on the file of Pato, so that we can held – if not Libya – the Tunisian authorities accountable for homicide. Because these people were within the Tunisian territory, they were dumped in the desert and they died: this is not just a normal death because of thirst, or hunger or heat, a homicide has been committed.

As I speak now (September 2023), there are still over 150 people, mostly women and children who have arrived from the raging war in Sudan, and they are still protesting in front of the UNHCR headquarter in Tripoli. That’s why I tell you that even in these aspects there is a still continuous human right violation being committed by Libya, whose inability to provide shelter for these people is increasing, and by the passiveness of the UNHCR because its unfair treatment continues to go on and on repetitively, to the point that we have to push them, write them, send communication to them. This is what is stated in their mandate and they are supposed to do it.

Refugees in Libya is therefore increasingly becoming an important actor of Libyan civil society on the topic of human rights. Can you confirm that?

Yes, I do confirm it. Because it’s not only for refugees, it’s also for the internally displaced people and the minority or indigenous population. In this regard, I am talking about a certain development that started recently, which is ethnic cleansing in Libya in Umm Al Aranib, in South of Libya. These people are the tribe of Toubou that were being cleansed by the Haftar’s militias and sent back to Chad under the pretext that they are chadian laborers. At this point, these people reach out to us and ask to tell something about their story because they are constantly and deliberately silenced. 

In this way, we see that It’s not only acting as a human right observatory, a structure for refugees, but also for those whose voices are not heard and want to be heard. This is what I can confirm.

In Tunisia, the hate campaign fuelled by the president Kaïs Saïed has led to increase in violence towards sub-saharan people. Did the evolution of the situation in Tunisia have consequences on the migration flows and on what is happening in Libya at the social level?

I think regarding this famous speech of Kais Saied on the great replacement conspiracy theory, it has a consequence or a strong influence in the region not only in Libya, but in the Maghreb region. Honestly, when you see the sentiment of Arabs towards Africans, darker skinned Africans, it is an existing mechanism so when we look back at the slave trade, the facilitator were the Arabs and the Arabs are living in the Maghreb region namely Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria.

So, when this speech was delivered, it immediately crossed the border because this is how propaganda works. Propaganda is very rich and very swift in reaching the places. When it arrived in Libya, you see that Libya is even copying  the same thing and saying “we don’t want refugees, we don’t want people arriving from the war in Sudan to come here because they are coming to replace the demographic composition of the country“.

I just mentioned the ethnic cleansing that when you find darker skinned person who has been living in Libya with all his ancestors, his forefathers have been there for at least for 200 years and then they tell you “you are dark skinned, which means you are from other African countries, you have to leave Libya”. These are the consequences that we see, which are already crossing borders and spreading from one person to the other.

The common people have been brainwashed and manipulated in this sense. I think about how it has influenced the social movement of people: we see that there is now a continuous repetitive circle of people. You see a person trying to flee from Libya who goes to Tunisia because it’s always such tiny hole for them to get out of and then when they don’t find Tunisia they come back again to Libya and then try to go to Morocco: this circle keeps on repeating, which means that this movement is not only affected by migrants, but also for the locals of these two countries.

These people are not having the freedom of movement anymore, they are stuck, they have to queue at the border in Ras Jedir, this means that all freedom of movement for the people of that particular region has been restricted and that they are being limited in the sense that if you are going for any urgent need, or if you are just someone who is trying to utilise your time in a wise base, then you are met with a long queue, to stay in queues for 24 hours.

What does that mean when you are trying to enter a country and a visa has not been given to you, something that used to be free in the past, a few years before this Memorandum and all these political interventions on the Tunisian politics. So, there is so much which is changing and people are getting more and more aware everyday because, when you look at the new arrivals this year, when we were talking about more than 100.000 people who have crossed [the sea] mostly from Tunisia and these people are Tunisians, why do you think they are fleeing?

If you think that you are making this situation much more gravier for migrants, the society is not self-sufficient, they have to depend on migrants, they have to depend on all these things that bring society together when they find insecurity for a particular people in a given space then destabilised the entire structure of the society, and that is exactly what is happening.

When you look at Libya also, a lot of Libyans are already coming this year, from Libya to Europe, because something is happening which doesn’t allow them to stay. We are not talking about those sub-Saharan Africans who are coming from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan or Senegal, but of the people who are just at the Southern coast of the Mediterranean, just beneath Europe and it’s not Europe’s interest to make the situation better. 

  1. The interview was conducted on 10 September 2023