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Syrians in Libya

Tamsin WalkerMay 28, 2014

The Syrian refugee crisis has been widely described as the worst for 20 years. While many have gone to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, a smaller group made the long trip to Libya, where they face an uncertain future.

Syrian refugees in a car on the sand
Syrian refugees in Libya report growing sense of insecurity amidst lawlessnessImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In February 2011 when Libyan revolutionaries began to show the teeth that would lead, just eight months later, to the demise and death of long-standing leader Moammar Gadhafi, the country was home to a sizeable Syrian workforce. But as violence erupted, filling the air with protest, gunfire and the promise of worse to come, many turned and headed for home.

What awaited them there, however, was a steady descent into a far more protracted crisis - one which the United Nations says has forced nine million people from their homes. Some two and a half million have crossed into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, while more than twice that many remain displaced within their own war-torn borders.

Smaller numbers have travelled the long road to Libya - which according to Danish Refugee Council data, costs average of $2,000 per person - either because they were among those who lived there prior to the violence of 2011, or because they thought it would yield a greater chance of decent employment than elsewhere in the region.

"Libya is very reliant on foreign workers, and because it is also an oil-producing country, many Syrians came here expecting better wages," Magdalena Mughrabi, Libya researcher with Amnesty International told DW. "They were hoping for a better life."

As it is, many seem to be working as mechanics or in the restaurant trade, and report finding it difficult to make ends meet.

No national asylum system

Refugees walk towards a port
It has become increasingly difficult for Syrians to enter Libya legallyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

So while they may have escaped the circles of violence playing out at home, the refugees have not walked into an easy reality. Libya’s relationship with its Syrian guests is as troubled as it is troubling, and inextricably bound up in the complexities of not having a national asylum system.

According to official United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics, 18,000 Syrians have registered as asylum seekers in Libya, but the community of refugees is actually thought to be somewhere between 90,000 to 200,000.

"We are still in the realm of estimates, but there are definitely a lot more refugees than those registered by UNHCR," Mughrabi said. Part of the problem is that many don't understand the role of international organizations and the sheer size of the North African country makes any kind of comprehensive outreach program very difficult.

Mixed Migration Program Officer at the Danish Refugee Council in Tripoli, Marie Kruse says the confusion regarding agencies such as the UNHCR also makes some fearful.

"They are afraid of losing their Syrian nationality somehow, but at the same time scared of being send back to Syria by authorities if they register with them."

Sticking together

Consequently, most who come, remain within the Syrian community and rely on each other for access to essentials such as accommodation and employment. But this lack of official support puts them in a vulnerable position in what is to all intents and purposes a lawless society headed by a government too weak to control the various militias that emerged during and after the 2011 revolution.

Kruse regularly visits refugee communities in the Libyan capital, and says that although Syrians often pick up work more easily than other minority groups, they still struggle.

"One reason why it has become, or is becoming, more difficult for them here is because of the cost of living and having to support whole families," Kruse told DW, adding that she has received several reports of non-payment of wages and excessively high rents.

A sprawling refugee camp in Jordan
Jordan is a more popular destination for refugees than LibyaImage: World Vision/R. Neufeld

"You will often find five families having to live in one house, with one room per family,” she said. "It is a pretty dire situation."

Hard to get in

Yet for all that, and the fact that visa requirements following the deadly 2012 terrorist attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, make it nigh on impossible for Syrians to access Libya through official channels, refugees are still arriving at its door.

They then have to rely on smugglers to help them in, and on unofficial sources to get their passports marked with the refugee stamp that theoretically affords them some recognized status. But in reality, they are at the risk of being poorly treated.

Beside the threat of discrimination, verbal harassment , violence and sometimes abduction, Mughrabi says many find themselves the victims of arbitrary detention. And even UNHCR asylum registration papers are not always recognized. "It relates back to the more general problem of a very loose chain of command between central authorities and police officers in different cities."

Looking across the water

This sense of being vulnerable and exploited in a country where rights are neither protected nor respected is giving rise to a feeling of being trapped. Unable to go home, and reluctant to stay where they are, the logical place to turn their gaze is the far side of the Mediterranean.

Kruse says the increasingly tense political situation adds to the feelings of insecurity, and makes Italy seem like a logical next step.

"We witness them becoming a group increasingly in need of help, and increasingly prone to take the boats to Europe," Kruse said.

A boat of refugees
Hundreds of people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean last yearImage: dapd

The journey, however short, is not without peril. Hundreds of people are known to have drowned trying to reach Italy last year alone, and and the Danish Refugee Council says Syrian refugee communities in Tripoli reported 50 Syrians who died in accidents off the coast of Libya. But the situation inside the country is such, Kruse adds, that the dangers of the crossing are unlikely to stop Syrian refugees from dreaming about a better life, and perhaps risking their own to reach it.