Libyans displaced by civil war face cruel winter as donations falter

Continued fighting leaves women, children and the elderly vulnerable as $35m humanitarian appeal emerges as the most underfunded in UN history

Hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Libya urgently need blankets, warm clothes and shelter as winter takes hold and fighting rages between the army, rebel militias and Islamist extremists, making relief efforts increasingly difficult.

Aid agencies said women, children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable as a violent standoff between armed forces linked to two rival administrations pushes the oil-producing country deeper into civil war.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said intense fighting in western, eastern and south-eastern Libya has forced more than 394,000 people from their homes. They are now scattered across 35 towns and cities, many of which are straining under the burden, with some schools being taken over to house the displaced.

“We’re very concerned,” said Dunnapar Fern Tilakamonkul, the UNHCR’s external relations officer for Libya. “During the winter months, especially in the south, it’s freezing cold. The majority of the displaced are women and children … In Ubari [in the south], they have nothing. It’s pretty bad.”

In September, the UN and its partners launched an appeal for $35.25m (£22.4m) to fund life-saving protection and humanitarian assistance. So far, according to the UN’s financial tracking service, there has been no response from donors, making it the most underfunded UN appeal this year.

Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said the international community did not have any appetite for greater involvement in Libya.

“There are so many other things on the agenda and as long as Libya remains principally a local issue, it’s not going to be one that the west takes a huge lead on,” he said, adding that unlike the situation in Syria and Iraq, there was no perceived direct threat to Britain or the US from Libyan extremists.

“In Libya, you haven’t got that expression yet. It’s just become an unstable situation where the west clearly has an interest to find a way of engaging more, but there isn’t the attention to be able to do that,” said Pantucci.

MDG : Libya civil war :  IDP (displaced people) on the rise
Two boys look on from their balcony in a refugee camp in Misrata. The UN says at least 100,000 Libyans have become internally displaced. Photograph: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua

Francois de la Roche, International Medical Corps’ (IMC) former country director for Libya, said that there were four main groups of displaced people: those able to move in with family and friends; those who were registered with local councils and received some assistance; members of the Tawergha tribe who have been displaced since the 2011 revolution; and migrants from other countries who come to Libya to try to get a boat to Europe.

Libya is a major departure point for migrants leaving Africa, often for Italy, but the use of rickety wooden boats has resulted in hundreds of deaths at sea. Human traffickers are believed to be exploiting the lack of security and political chaos.

The recent fighting appears to have also precipitated a surge in the number of migrants fleeing Libya on boats. De la Roche, who left Libya in November, said the chaos was a “gate-opener.”

Tilakamonkul said it was hard to measure the motivations of people leaving Libyan shores now but “the numbers of people reaching Italy shows the type of desperation because there is no alternative to leave”.

Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 overthrow by rebels supported by Nato, some Gulf states and Turkey, was portrayed as an early Arab Spring success story. But in a land awash with weapons and ammunition, the euphoria was short-lived, and fighting between various armed factions soon broke out.

De la Roche said that, while getting access to people forced to flee their homes was a challenge for aid agencies – most of which pulled out international staff when the latest round of violence exploded in August – funding was another serious concern.

“The money just isn’t there … You’ve got Ebola, Syria, Ukraine. You’ve got a whole bunch of these big, high-profile items that are burying the situation in Libya and it is a humanitarian crisis,” he said.

IMC, with support from the UNHCR, sent relief supplies across the border from Tunisia in August. IMC’s local staff and partners have provided medicines and other supplies to hospitals, and visit migrants held in detention centres.

De la Roche said efforts to secure funding were further stymied by the perception of Libya as a rich, oil-producing country. The presence of two rival administrations also made it difficult to gain access and maintain neutrality.

The Libyan prime minster, Abdullah al-Thinni, and his internationally recognised government were forced out of Tripoli in August by Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist brigades and militias from western coastal towns, including Misrata. The latter have now formed their own administration in Tripoli, while Al-Thinni and his team are based in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Meanwhile, in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, pro-government forces have been fighting Islamist forces.

This week, the Libyan Red Crescent Society said its staff and volunteers had been forced to relocate to safer areas in Benghazi because of fighting. They continue to offer medical and first aid services to residents and displaced people in Benghazi, and to distribute food supplies and other items in Tripoli.

Pantucci does not expect a swift resolution. “The situation has bubbled along in a quite chaotic way for some time now and it just seems to be moving itself forward by its own force,” he said. “It doesn’t seem as if it’s going to improve in the immediate future.”


Clár Ní Chonghaile

The GuardianTramp

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