Published by Consiglio Direttivo Mediterranea | 12 / Jul / 2023

Out of the lager of Ain Zara. The fight for freedom is only the first step

225 refugees, detained in the Ain Zara camp for the past year and a half, were released yesterday by the Libyan authorities under UNHCR supervision.

They are brothers and sisters internedə following protests in 2021 denouncing the terrible living conditions in Libya. This is an extraordinary first victory for the Refugees in Libya movement and the European platform of struggle Unfair who, since 2022, have been mobilising all over Europe to demand the release of the detainees and their evacuation to safe countries.

The history of this struggle in Libya and Europe is proof that, together, we can change the fate of women, men and children trapped in the Libyan hell because of the dehumanising policies of border externalisation and refoulement implemented by European governments.

The protest in front of the UNHCR office in Tripoli

The story of an extraordinary struggle

On the night of the first to the second of October 2021, thousands of migrants are rounded up and interned in camps following a violent operation by police and Tripoli government militias in the Gargaresh neighbourhood.

In response to the repression and to denounce the living conditions of the detainees, the thousands of refugees who escaped arrest organise themselves into a permanent garrison in front of the UNHCR offices in Tripoli. This is the birth of the Refugees in Libya movement. They demand to be evacuated to safe countries, an end to torture, kidnapping by militias, blackmail, killings, and rape. They ask Europe and the United Nations to intervene.

It is the first time that a strong and collective voice is raised from the Libyan hell, reaching the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, and Pope Francis, who repeatedly expresses his closeness to these brothers and sisters. The garrison lasted a hundred days until 10 January 2022, when the militiamen of Al Khoja, head of the DCIM (Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration) violently evicted the protesters, interning over 600 people in the notorious Ain Zara lager. Two days earlier, the UNHCR, the UN agency formally in charge of their protection, had closed its offices.

The movement resists. The will to live is stronger than the horror. Some activists and spokespersons, having evaded capture, flee to Italy and continue the fight outside Libyan soil. They cannot leave their sisters and brothers behind. They network with European civil society and in November 2022, on the occasion of the renewal of the Italy-Libya Memorandum, they take to the streets of 20 European cities, garrisoning local UNHCR offices. As a result of this political and public pressure, 300 women and children are relocated to safe accommodation. This is the first step. The second takes place in Geneva on 10 December 2022. On World Human Rights Day, they lead the mobilisation in front of UNHCR headquarters and demand the immediate release of those still imprisoned in Ain Zara and all Libyan lagers.

The UNHCR reacts again and 50 more people are released. But this is not enough. The UN agency has limited powers, depends financially and politically on the decisions of European states, which are directly responsible for the pain and suffering of the people still imprisoned.

The next step is to reach the political decision-making centre of the European Union. And so on 30 June and 1 July, the movement organises a counter-summit in Brussels, while the heads of state and government are discussing the reform of the new asylum system that aims to further reduce freedom of movement.

Brussels, 30 June 2023, press conference at the European Parliament

In the press conference in the European Parliament on 29 July that opened the counter-summit, the movement's spokespersons again demanded the release of the imprisoned persons. This was followed by meetings with European parliamentarians where images were shown of the detainees' living conditions and torture. The final procession, joined by local movements of migrants and sans papiers, marches through the capital of the European Union, past the headquarters of its institutions and the offices of the executors of migration policies: EU Council, Commission, Parliament, UNHCR, IOM, Frontex, ICMPD.

At the end of the counter-summit came the hoped-for news. Following UNHCR intervention, the Libyan authorities order the immediate release of the detainees and the start of verification procedures.

On 11 July, the 225 survivors of torture and forced labour are finally able to sign the agreement that spells out the conditions and modalities of their release: relocation to an urban area, cash assistance (in the form of cash and credit cards) for housing and the purchase of non-food items, and individual medical interventions according to their specific needs. People are left on the streets without shelter or sustenance, despite the promise to provide guidance in finding accommodation. The compensation provided was only 300 dinars in cash, insufficient to rent a house in Tripoli, and 700 dinars in cards to be used in grocery shops. However, these gift cards are only valid in specific locations and unusable in other cities, effectively limiting the ability to make independent choices and keeping them under surveillance.

Il documento dell'UNHCR che esplicita condizioni e modalità del rilascio

The joy of seeing them freeə is great, but the concern for their future remains. Today they find themselves in the same condition as a year and a half ago. Most of them come from Sudan, a country again plagued by civil war. Libya is still hell. More than 20,000 people are still incarcerated in its detention centres, official and unofficial. The closure of all camps and evacuation to safe countries still remains an imperative.

The struggle, at sea and on land, in Libya and in Europe, continues. And you can be part of it.

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