The Impact of COVID-19 on Migrants, Refugees, and IDPs During the Libyan Conflict

Montaha Nottah

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Libya when the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) announced the recording of the first case of COVID-19. Similar to other countries, the pandemic led to restrictive policies, strict economic activities, and minimal movement in the streets. However, the situation in Libya was quite different due to the conflict between the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Western Libya under the leadership of Faez Al Sarraj and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in the Eastern region led by General Khalifa Haftar. That resulted in a catastrophe, a global pandemic, and a bloody war.

In 2020, statistics showed that the number of migrants reached 625,638 in the Libyan territory. 93% of the migrant population comes from sub-Sahara and North Africa, such as Niger (21 per cent), Egypt (18 per cent), Chad (15 per cent), and Sudan (15 per cent). Due to the hardships that the pandemic brought to the already-struggling country, 315,000 migrants were difficult to reach for humanitarian support from local and international organizations, including the suspension of the Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) program implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Hence, the protection of these vulnerable populations became quite challenging as well as the risk was high for humanitarian staff, taking into consideration social distancing measures.

The intensity of the war during the pandemic had an impact on Libyans and non-Libyans. As such, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) jumped from 187,423 to 401,836 in April 2020 – even though leaving the house during that time was prohibited due to COVID-19 restrictions. The majority of IDPs had to move to the center of the capital, as it was the furthest area from the clashes that took place in the outskirts of Tripoli and other areas such as Sirt, Murzuq, and Abu Gurayn. That resulted in an increase in the rent prices with the minimum financial capability of the IDPs; in addition to the liquidity issues and difficulties to withdraw cash from the banks.

None of the two governments have taken any actions to support IDPs by providing food, Non-food Items (NFIs), shelter, alternative livelihood opportunities, or cash. They were simply left to their own fate. Some IDPs moved in with relatives temporarily, others stayed in overcrowded schools-turned-shelters with poor infrastructure and sanitation. In both cases, there was a high exposure to the virus due to the lack of social distancing and the difficulty of self-isolation.

The situation of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers has always been horrific, specifically for those who are kept in detention centers. These centers are mostly run by human traffickers and gangs for profit purposes. All sorts of human rights violations from sexual rape to electric shocks; however, the risk of contracting the virus was higher during the pandemic due to overcrowding inside the centers where thousands are detained with the lack of hygiene, food, and medicine. Moreover, these populations never had equal access to healthcare in Libya, even in the national vaccination campaign, they only became included in late 2021.

In Libya, these vulnerable populations work in the informal sector only, but when the pandemic broke out, strict measurements have been enforced by the government, including restrictions on movement and closures of informal businesses. Thus, migrants and refugees lost the jobs that used to generate their income, such as construction, plumbing, car repair, home electricity, etc. Based on an assessment conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in May 2020, 52% of migrants who rely on daily wage said that it has been hard to find work.

In addition to the increase in prices during the pandemic, the latter placed a threat to the food security and well-being of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. The same assessment shows that 71% of migrants are food insecure. Although Libya is deemed by most refugees and migrants as a transit destination to reach Europe, mainly Italy and Malta, that was not the case during the pandemic because the Tripoli-based government (GNA) refused to return migrants stopped at sea due to the bombardment around Tripoli. Additionally, Malta and Italy declared the refusal to accept rescue boats as part of their measures against COVID-19 until the end of the pandemic. The latter left the migrant community long lost.

Unfortunately, the health sector in Libya is known to be one of the weakest sectors. It lacks the necessary equipment, medicine, and qualified staff. During the pandemic, hospitals were packed with conflict-wounded persons and those with chronic diseases, which made it extremely difficult to treat COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, 27 health facilities have been damaged as a result of clashes, such as Al Khadra General Hospital, and 14 of them have been shut down.

In short, the political instability left little effort to set an effective national-level response to the pandemic. Despite the assistance delivered by nonprofit organizations, such as the International Medical Corps (IMC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Rescue Committee (IRC), the pandemic was a complex situation that required the collaboration of three sectors, public, private, and civil society to have a factual efficient response in times of conflict.

About the author

Montaha Nottah is a Political Studies graduate with minors in Human Rights and the Nonprofit Sector from the American University of Beirut (AUB). She is currently a humanitarian worker with a focus on humanitarian aid and migration studies in Libya.

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