Iarrived in Tripoli on 29 February during a lull in the bombardment of the city. The day before, no planes had been able to land: Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) had fired fifty or sixty missiles at the airport. Haftar has been trying to seize the capital from forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) for more than a year. The arrivals area at the airport looked normal enough, except for the mask-wearing medical personnel taking everyone’s temperature with thermal cameras. A fortnight later, when I walked into Tunisia through the desert border post of Wazin, three hundred kilometres west of Tripoli, Tunisian medics were waiting to take my temperature on the other side. Both countries were quick to adopt measures to contain Covid-19 and at Tunis airport many staff and passengers were wearing face masks. When I landed in Paris on 12 March, I was surprised that similar measures weren’t in place.
On 16 March, a few days after I left, Libya’s borders and airports were closed, its schools shut and a curfew issued by the country’s two rival ‘governments’. The first Covid-19 case wasn’t confirmed until eight days later. The UN has called repeatedly for a truce in the fighting in order to contain the spread of the virus, but the war, which caused more than two hundred deaths in March and a record 314 in April, is currently much more lethal. Haftar’s LNA, backed by Egypt, Russia and the UAE, still controls significant portions of the country, including most of the oil reserves in the east. Last November, after six months of stalemate, LNA forces began to advance towards the centre of Tripoli. In response, Turkey sent several thousand troops, as well as weapons systems, to shore up the GNA, leaving Western governments caught between their desire to end Haftar’s offensive and frustration at Turkey’s violation of the UN arms embargo.
Talks in Moscow and Berlin in January seemed to offer some prospect of negotiations, but discussions stalled and the flow of weapons from foreign states increased dramatically. The LNA’s blockade of major oil ports, which began in January, has cost the country at least $4 billion and the UN estimates that more than a million people, almost a sixth of the population, require humanitarian aid. The impact of Covid-19 has only made the situation more desperate. By the end of the third week of May, Libya had tested 4351 people and had 71 confirmed cases, including three deaths, though it’s likely that the real numbers are much higher, with many unrecognised cases among the hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan migrants in the country. Unauthorised migrants and would-be asylum seekers who have symptoms are unlikely to go to hospital, and unlikely to be tested and treated if they do.
So far there have been no cases among the 1500 migrants held in Libya’s eleven detention centres. The detainees worry about what might happen if the virus started to spread in a centre like Dahr-el-Jebel, where five hundred migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia, are packed twenty to a room. But they also say that they feel safer in detention than they would in Tripoli, where most of the country’s Covid-19 cases have been recorded. Many of them already have experience of serious respiratory infections. When I first visited Dahr-el-Jebel a year ago, more than twenty detainees had died from an outbreak of tuberculosis, ninety suspected cases were being isolated in a ‘sick house’ and others were trying to protect themselves with makeshift masks. Very few detainees from Dahr-el-Jebel have been among the asylum seekers evacuated by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which resettles about two thousand people from Libya every year. The centre’s remoteness – it’s in the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya and the detainees were moved there originally to get them away from the fighting – has served as an excuse for the failure of UN agencies either to evacuate the inmates or give them adequate medical treatment, but it does bring some protection from infection. ‘Relatively, the detention centre is better than the street,’ one detainee said to me on the phone. ‘Those who were released are in more danger than us.’
UNHCR is using the Covid-19 crisis to reiterate its call for the closure of all Libyan detention centres. But this may not be the right decision. In March, Sabaa detention centre in Tripoli was closed because of its proximity to the front line. But according to NGO sources, some of the two hundred or so people released couldn’t find anywhere to sleep and begged to be taken back into detention. Similarly, in July last year the Gharyan detention centre was emptied of its 29 detainees, again because there was fighting nearby, and they were given a one-off payment of 450 dinars (£60 on the black market) by UNHCR to help them get established in Tripoli. They also asked to be returned to detention, but were ignored. Two died trying to cross the Mediterranean, and a third from illness.
Many have ended up in conditions as bad as those at the detention centre. One former Gharyan detainee I spoke to last month was living in a ruined building in a poor part of Tripoli. More than two hundred migrants are sleeping there, including thirty of those released from Sabaa and more than a hundred recently released from the detention centre at Zawiya, also near a frontline. The area is a centre of the drug trade and the migrants pay protection money to their landlord – a drug dealer – as well as rent. His reputation is supposed to put thieves off entering the compound. But on the street the tenants run the risk of being robbed at gunpoint, or abducted by traffickers who torture their captives, posting videos to the families in the hope of getting ransom money. Eritreans are prized by traffickers, who believe – not always wrongly – that they might be able to get large payments from prosperous diasporas in Europe and the US.
Those who used to work can no longer find jobs: Libyan employers are worried about the risk of infection. Even before the pandemic, sub-Saharan migrants were thought by Libyans to be a source of disease. Under Gaddafi, migrants with HIV and hepatitis were deported. Since the emergence of the Covid-19 virus, there have been reports on social media of a new crackdown, particularly in southern Libya. More than four hundred migrants have been deported to neighbouring Niger.
Many asylum seekers have also seen their hopes of leaving Libya dashed by the pandemic. On 17 March, UNHCR halted its (already limited) resettlement flights. ‘We’re not asking any longer for evacuation,’ a detainee in Dahr-el-Jebel told me. ‘We just need to save our lives.’ Some of those who get tired of waiting to be evacuated try their luck with the people smugglers, at a cost of around $1500. Conscientious smugglers take account of the weather forecast and the position of the European rescue boats chartered by NGOs. Migrants who have smartphones can also track the rescue boats: there are websites that do this. On 6 March, an Eritrean called Yonas, who had escaped from Dahr-el-Jebel, texted me from a smuggler’s warehouse near the Libyan coast, where he had been locked up for two months waiting for a boat, to say that the weather looked good and he had heard that the Ocean Viking, chartered by SOS Méditerranée and Médecins sans Frontières, was picking up migrants from dinghies, but he couldn’t find the boat on his phone. In late February, it had reached Sicily with 274 rescued migrants and had been quarantined. After 14 days the quarantine was lifted and the Ocean Viking returned to port in Marseille. SOS Méditerranée refused to challenge Italian and Maltese decrees that the pandemic made their ports unsafe for migrants. MSF disagreed and ended the partnership.
In late March, Yonas heard that another rescue boat, the Alan Kurdi, was on its way to Libyan waters. But he didn’t manage to get on board. On 7 April, the boat, crammed with 150 migrants, headed for Italy. That day I received three texts from one of Yonas’s companions: ‘They will never … Rescue more people … Cause of the corona situation.’ On 5 May, after its passengers had spent 16 days in quarantine, the Alan Kurdi was seized by the Italian authorities. Both Italy and Malta have closed their ports because of the virus, and are also blocking the arrival of migrants. In mid-April the Maltese authorities requisitioned a trawler to pick up 51 migrants in a dinghy (12 had already died) in Malta’s search and rescue zone. The trawler took the survivors to Tripoli, where they were returned to a detention centre. A second boat with 47 passengers sent out distress calls which were ignored by the Maltese authorities; its passengers were eventually picked up, three days later, by the rescue boat Aita Mari, the last NGO boat in this part of the Mediterranean. On 7 May, the Aita Mari was impounded by the Italian authorities.
On 3 May, Yonas and 49 others boarded a small boat. They had been promised enough fuel and food to last three days. They, too, reached Malta’s search and rescue zone but then ran short of fuel. They could see the lights of several boats, and eventually a fishing boat, bearing no flag but possibly acting at the instigation of Malta, towed them back towards the Tunisian coast, before heading north. Yonas called me recently to say that he was in quarantine in Tunisia, and had no idea how long he would be held there.