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Libya flood victims: Difficult search for missing migrants

Islam Alatrash in Libya | Cathrin Schaer
September 21, 2023

Around 10% of the victims of the recent devastating floods in Libya were from other countries. Some were working there, others likely trying to leave for Europe.

A man reacts as he sits on the rubble of a destroyed building in Libya's eastern city of Derna
Entire neighborhoods in the Libyan city of Derna were swept away by floodwaters last weekImage: KARIM SAHIB/AFP

It has been just over a week since devastating floods hit eastern Libya and as yet, Aisha al-Imam has had no word from her eldest son.

He was supposed to get married in two months and had gone to Libya to work in construction, to earn money to pay for the ceremony, al-Imam told DW in a tearful phone call. 

"The loss we have suffered is immense," said the woman who lives in the central Egyptian province of Beni Suef. "The village cannot bear it. There is not a single household here that has not felt a loss."

Beni Suef is one of Egypt's most impoverished regions, where an estimated 60% of the inhabitants live under the poverty line. Of the around 250 Egyptian dead identified by Libyan authorities so far, around half came from one village in Beni Suef called Nazlet el-Sharif.

All the despairing mother wants now is to see her son's body. "All I have left is grief," al-Imam said.

The Egyptian community in Derna, the coastal Libyan city hardest hit by last week's flooding after two dams burst, numbered around 2,000 people, Tarek al-Kharraz, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry of the government that oversees eastern Libya, confirmed. A large percentage of them are still missing due to the floods, with further victims' identities yet to be confirmed, he added.

Around 10% of those dead are not Libyan

Egypt is not the only country impacted in this way. Prior to flooding caused by Storm Daniel, the UN's migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimated that there were over 230,000 migrants living in eastern Libya.

At last count, the confirmed death toll — which has been somewhat confused because of conflicting tallies from different organizations and authorities — is thought to be around 4,000. Of that, over 500 of the dead have been identified as non-Libyans. 

Thousands still missing in Libya's flood disaster

Again, definite numbers are hard to come by. But so far, the death toll has included 276 Sudanese, according to the Secretariat of Sudanese Working Abroad, as well as over 110 Syrians, as counted by the UK-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, which usually tallies war dead in Syria itself.

The bodies of six Bangladeshis killed in the flooding have also been identified. There are also nationals from other countries still missing and, as recovery efforts continue, it is likely the numbers of non-Libyan dead will continue to rise, along with the numbers of deceased Libyans. Altogether, around 10,000 people are still missing and any hope of finding survivors has faded this week.

Besides migrants who lost their lives, many have also been displaced by the flooding. The IOM says that at least 40,000 people have been forced to leave their homes after Storm Daniel lashed the area on September 10.

While many of those who have been made homeless are still searching for the missing, several thousand have moved to towns and villages further east and several hundred have moved west, the IOM's latest situation report notes.

African migrant construction workers pour cement at a building site in Tripoli
Of the migrants in Libya in August this year, 91% were from sub-Saharan or North Africa, the IOM reported Image: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP

Most of the displaced are staying with relatives, an IOM spokesperson told DW. When counting the displaced, the organization did not differentiate between displaced Libyans and non-Libyans.

IOM staff are working with the embassies of some migrants' countries of origin, including those of Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan and Egypt, the spokesperson said, but it is far too early to tell what has happened to migrants in Libya impacted by the flooding. "The response is still purely a humanitarian, emergency one," the spokesperson noted.

Migrants come to Libya for work or transit

Libya is well known as a destination for migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Many live and work in Libya's oil-rich economy while others see the country's Mediterranean coast as a departure point for a journey onwards to Europe, where they hope to seek asylum or gain residence. 

Not many migrants are officially listed with any kind of Libyan authority. The UN's Refugee Agency had registered around 1,000 asylum seekers and refugees in the city of Derna itself, but it's likely there were far more there. The IOM believes there were about 8,000 foreigners living in Derna, for example.

Most foreigners were from Chad, Egypt, Sudan or Niger, the IOM said, and many were younger men, aged between 18 and 30, trying to make a living and send money to their families back home. Many are working in the country illegally, something that is easy to do given the chaotic state of government in Libya. Since 2014, Libya has been split into two, with opposing governments located in the east and west of the country. 

There are also migrants from Syria, Bangladesh and Pakistan in Libya. The latter two nationalities often enter Libya through Egypt, while Syrians come into the country on a tourist visa and then stay on.

Even before the flood, Human Rights Watch had expressed concern about the treatment of migrants inside Libya. The organization has previously documented inhumane conditions inside migrant detention centers that include everything from overcrowding to torture.

The flooding makes the situation for migrants in Libya even worse. 

"Irregular migrants are particularly vulnerable … because they lack the livelihoods, assets and community support to build resilience," researchers at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies wrote in a briefing published this week. "Migrants in affected cities will probably encounter heightened xenophobia as Libyan communities rebuild. Migrants are also less likely to be identified and have their remains returned home for burial."

Communications breakdown hampers searches

"Human Rights Watch is very concerned about the wellbeing of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya [in general], and especially those impacted by the flooding in eastern Libya," said Hanan Salah, a senior Libya researcher at the organization. "Conditions in the towns and villages impacted by the storm are disastrous … we are concerned though that migrants and asylum seekers who already face extreme hardship while in Libya may not get access to basic services including shelter, clean water, sufficient food and healthcare."

It is also really difficult to work out where exactly migrants are, whether they're displaced, wounded or worse, Salah said. Communications issues mean they "could also face difficulties informing their families and loved ones about their whereabouts," she told DW.

Libyans report that pages on local social media platforms are listing the names of many missing individuals, as their families try to locate them.

People who survived the deadly storm that hit Libya, protest outside the Al Sahaba mosque against the government in Derna
Since the floods, there have been angry protests in Derna about local authorities' inaction Image: Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

Mohammed Abdel-Rabah, a 28-year-old Syrian, considers himself one of the lucky ones. He moved to Derna last year and was found alive under some rubble. When DW spoke with him by phone, he was being treated at a hospital in Benghazi.

Abdel-Rabah was swept away by the flooding but to an area where the water wasn't as deep, he said. He grabbed hold of a large piece of wood and hung on as he was carried along. "In those terrifying moments, I witnessed death," he said. "There were bodies beside me, above me and below me."

Before being swept away, he saw sights that he and anybody else who saw them — whether Libyan, Syrian, Sudanese, Egyptian or any other nationality — could never forget, he recalled.

"From my roof, I saw children screaming and waving as the waters carried them into the sea," he recounted his harrowing experience. "I even prayed to God to let them die quickly so their pain would end and their screams, which will forever haunt me, would stop."

Edited by: Jessie Wingard

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.