Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Beyond Violent Raids, Sit-In Evictions and Arbitrary Detention in Tripoli (Libya): How Black Refugee Voices Refuse to be Silenced



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Guest post by Chiara Denaro. Chiara is a Postdoctoral researcher in Sociology at Trento University on the project “PRIN-2017, Debordering activities and citizenship from below of asylum seekers in Italy”. She is a social worker and legal expert, working with migrants and refugees. Her socio-legal research work concerns asylum and migration policies in the Mediterranean space, border control policies, human rights, right to asylum, as well as the practices and strategies of resistance put in place by people on the move. As part of WatchTheMed Alarm Phone, Chiara focuses on the Central Mediterranean route.

Refugee Sit-in in Tripoli, Libya (Photo: Refugees in Libya)

Following October 1, 2021, when Libyan security forces and affiliated militias carried out brutal police raids against refugees living in Gargaresh (West Tripoli), over 2,000 refugees started a peaceful protest in front of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Community Day Centre (CDC) in Tripoli, demanding relocation, protection and evacuation from Libya. Since the start of the protests, UNHCR and its partners’ activities at CDC were suspended. On 10 January, 2022, after more than three months since it began, the sit-in was forcibly evicted and more than 600 people were arrested and detained. This happened just few hours after the UNHCR CDC was permanently closed.

This blog post focuses on the protests in Tripoli, by highlighting how refugee voices have emerged in the frame of an “information battleground” between the UNHCR-led dominant narrative and their counternarratives about the refugee situation in Libya. Furthermore, it argues that the although forced eviction of the refugee sit-in, and the subsequent mass arrests were aimed at silencing and criminalizing those critical voices, refugees are continuing to claim for listening, protection and evacuations from Libya.

From police raids in Gargaresh to peaceful protests in Tripoli

On 1st October 2021, Libyan security forces and militias affiliated with Libya’s Interior Ministry violently broke into homes and temporary shelters in the Gargaresh area in Tripoli, by firing live ammunition, damaging belongings, and stealing valuables. Refugees’ testimonies reported brutal violence, humiliations, rapes, and torture, including against women and children. While the government claimed this was an “anti-crime operation”, aimed at “cleaning the area of alcohol, drugs and prostitution”, of the more than 5,000 people arrested, regardless of their legal status, 4,000 were transferred to the Al Mabani collection and return centre, hinting at the use of detention as a means to extortion practices, and mass deportations. Indeed, few days later, the Ministry of Interior asked for the support from international organizations to arrange the “quick deportation of illegal migrants”. As Libya has not ratified the Refugee Convention, violations of the non-refoulement principle are quite systematic, and take place through return operations to unsafe countries of origins, such as Sudan, Niger, Chad and Somalia, denying people access to asylum (OHCHR, 2016, 2018, 2020). 

After the Gargaresh police raids, the thousands of people who were affected, including women and children, started a protest in front of the UNHCR Community Day Centre (CDC) in Al Serraj (Tripoli) to denounce their continuous exposure to abuses, violations, and detention and to claim for protection and evacuations.

Refugees speaking-up, documenting, mourning, and claiming for rights and justice

At the core of refugee claims, were dignified living conditions – or at least temporary safe accommodation – protection from violence, abuses, and evacuations from Libya, as well as a strong critique of EU-cooperation with Libya and of the role and mandate of international agencies in this framework.

“We call on the whole world to recognize us as humans, to respect and protect our rights” they said, and “on the Italian authorities and EU member states pouring funds to Libya to make sure that their actions and political wills do not harm us and violate our rights”, such as through ‘forcible deportations to the Libyan inhumane detention centres and to countries of origin’.

Civil society networks, such as Alarm Phone and Mediterranea Saving Humans quoted them in a joint statement, showing solidarity to the protests in front of CDC. Building a huge solidarity network, made of activists, journalists, and NGOs, as well as of more institutional actors such as the Pope Francis, was a key goal of the demonstrators. It was achieved through smart use of digital technologies and social media – such as their twitter account Refugees in Libya, and their blog which had a key role in documenting, filming, (counter)narrating the ongoing events. Digital platforms became what Arendt defined as contentious “spaces of appearance”, where refugees could spread audio-visual testimonies of their demonstrations – and commemorations – in front of CDC. After the killings of Amer Abaker and Banmat Barkhat during the protests, refugees started sharing their pictures on their social media, creating hashtags with their names, and organizing public and collective events of mourning. In doing so, they gave back identity to the dead people, subverted what Judith Butler defined as “ungrievability”, and challenged the invisibility of precariousness and daily violence they were exposed to.  

Refugee Sit-in in Tripoli, Libya (Photo: Refugees in Libya)

The refugee protests as “information battleground”

During the protests, UNHCR in Libya was a key interlocutor for refugees. Twitter was the main “exchange platform”, except in the couple of occasions when the refugee delegation met with Jean Paul Cavalieri (UNHCR chief of mission in Libya). While refugees’ fundamental claims concerned protection, evacuation, resettlement, Cavalieri’s responses included the potential reopening of CDC in Tripoli and possible UNHCR advocacy to release women and children from detention. From the refugees’ perspective, in lack of a “proper negotiation on evacuations, and of the designation of a safe place for them to stay –  these options were perceived as forms of “mere assistance” instead of “real solutions”.

Looking into virtual exchanges between @refugeesinlibya and the UNHCR Libya on Twitter, it was possible to observe an ‘information battleground’.

In UNHCR statements, refugees who were demonstrating in front of CDC were re-named as “protestors” and accused of “preventing vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees” from accessing their services. These allegations risked to de-legitimize and de-politicize refugee discourse, by artificially generating two groups – the bad protestors and the good vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees – and simply obscuring that those who were protesting were indeed refugees.

The nature of the protests was another key element in the information battleground. While UNHCR was publicly ‘deploring violence exploded during the protests’, the refugee delegations kept outlining the peaceful nature of protests, accurately documenting the events through audio-visual material, and pointing out how UNHCR statements were possibly misleading.

“We never hindered any other refugee or asylum seeker from accessing their (ndr. the UNHCR) office”, a refugee said, and added “We have been calling for protection and evacuation. How could we at the same time make them close their doors and tell them (ndr. the UNHCR) not to work?” (Conversation with the author).

Finally, what Chimni defined as UNHCR’s knowledge production and dissemination functions risked to further delegitimate the protests in Tripoli, by labelling refugee claims and expectations as naive and unappropriated. While remarking that evacuation was “not a right”, the UN Agency re-defined Libya as a “destination country”, where refugees went to work, rather than a “transit country” where people get trapped while fleeing persecutions and attempting to reach Europe.

To this narrative, refugees responded by reiterating they were people fleeing persecutions and in need of protection, and by strongly criticizing the EU-Libya cooperation, whose main goal was to keep them in Libya, where they were constantly exposed to what MSF defined as a “cycle of violence and exploitation”: from detention to sea-crossings, sea-interceptions, and pushbacks, back to detention, again. The 2017 Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding – which covered capacity building, funding, and the provision of equipment to the Libyan coastguard – laid out the framework in which more than 85,000 people were illegitimately returned to Libya after being intercepted at sea with the support of Frontex  (author’s elaboration on IOM Libya Maritime updates). Unfortunately, despite the fact that Libya doesn’t meet the criteria to be qualified neither as a safe third country nor a place of safety for disembarkation, and is condemned for crimes against humanity, outsourcing border and migration management, as well as delegating rescue and protection responsibility and externalising asylum are still at the core of EU non-entrée policies (Santer, 2019).

In this context, while ensuring a façade of compliance with human rights and asylum law and standards, UNHCR has a limited operational autonomy in the country. Despite being one of the most funded stakeholders in Libya under the 2015 established EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) - being the counterpart in three national and one regional projects - the UN agency cannot build refugee camps, it does not have systematic access to detention centres nor the mandate to ensure the release of persons of concern. Furthermore, during and after the protests, the UNHCR Community Day Centre had suspended its activities, before being permanently closed.

Refugee Sit-in in Tripoli, Libya (Photo: Refugees in Libya)

The aftermath of the violent sit-in eviction: black voices refuse to be silenced

On 10 January, 2022, the refugee sit-in was forcibly evicted and more than 600 people were brought to Ain Zara detention centre. While visiting detainees, Doctors Without Borders teams treated ‘patients with stab wound, beating marks and signs of shock or trauma caused by the forced arrests’.

Nevertheless, the criminalisation of protests failed to silence refugee voices. In February 2022, a group of refugees detained in Ain Zara started a hunger strike, denouncing the inhuman detention conditions and the systematic violence which they were exposed to. On 6March, 2022, more than 100 refugees gathered in front of UNHCR Libya Headquarter, again, asking to be listened to and protected.

As Sigona argues, when looking at the politics of refugee voices it is important to examine ‘how refugees contest the process which led to the silencing and marginalization of their narratives and experiences’, how they cease to be speechless emissaries, raising their “voices through exit”, and contesting mainstream narratives

In line with this argument, exploring refugees’ counternarratives and protests, seems extremely relevant in this case. On the one hand, it may feed a reflection upon the actual inadequacy of global asylum policies, how the presence of International Organizations may legitimize – by granting a human rights ‘façade’EU cooperation with unsafe countries, such as Libya, and how a shift of paradigm towards what Moreno-Lax defines a “right to flee based approach” is extremely needed.

Moreover, studying refugee voices, protests, struggles, and claims for justice is essential to undo/unmake processes of silencing and victimization, which deprive them of what Spivak called the ‘right to speak’. During the protests, refugees were able to create what Fraser terms as the “subaltern counterpublic”, namely a “parallel discursive arena where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses, which permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs”. Their Twitter page and blog were platforms where refugees, as a marginalized group, were able to ‘deconstruct structures of exclusion’ and to ‘produce critical knowledge’. Foregrounding their voices seems topical and timely. It is also a small step toward deconstructing knowledge production mechanisms and decolonizing refugee studies. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Denaro, C. (2022) Beyond Violent Raids, Sit-In Evictions and Arbitrary Detention in Tripoli (Libya): How Black Refugee Voices Refuse to be Silenced. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/03/beyond-violent [date]

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