Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 after a civil war toppled long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi. The North African nation has been embroiled in conflict and violence since, which have taken a heavy toll on the country’s economy and population.
The latest round of fighting left thousands of people displaced and several others without any source of income. Amid the chaos, many migrants — in a desperate bid to reach Europe — find themselves at risk of being trapped or abused.
In Libya, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working to help families find loved ones missing due to conflict, assist returnees, and help the country’s weakened health systems during the pandemic.
Daily News Egypt interviewed Jean-Nicolas Marti, the Head of the ICRC Libya Delegation, to find out about the organisation’s efforts to alleviate the suffering in the North African nation.
How does the ICRC assist people that have been displaced due to the conflict in Libya?
More than 20,000 people have returned to their homes near the former frontlines in the southern neighbourhoods of Tripoli. After over a year-long displacement, families came back to destroyed homes, scarce resources, and a lack of crucial services such as electricity, water, and health.
The ICRC has also been assisting displaced persons from Ain Zara; some of whom returned to the area to help cope with the situation.
Years of instability and fighting has greatly affected the socio-economic fabric; many Libyans, especially returnees, are struggling in the middle of a crumbling economy.
We have distributed food assistance to around 30,000 displaced people and returnees as well as provided returnees with basic household appliances.
The ICRC has also provided cash transfers to many families in dire need.
How does the ICRC assist with prisoner exchanges between warring parties in Libya?
We have offered our services to both parties — the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Government of National Accord (GNA) at the time — and now the Government of National Unity (GNU). However, they have not picked up our effort; so, they had other mechanisms.
I think there were a few exchanges that have been made through the tribal leaders and elders that have met last year. There was also one exchange that was organised by the Joint Military Commission (JMC, 5+5), but for now, the ICRC has not been involved with prisoners exchange.
In 2019, we created a tripartite mechanism between the LNA, GNA, and the ICRC. The military officers from both sides met together with the ICRC to discuss emergency humanitarian assistance, like the evacuation of the war wounded, the repatriation of remains, and providing safe passage for convoys.
This continued through the conflict, but it is not active right now. We also met in November 2021 in Tunis to discuss missing persons, access to detainees, and teaching international humanitarian law to the army and security forces. This is the way we operate in Libya.
What role does the ICRC play to improve health conditions in Libya, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have a substantial health programme in Libya because the health system has been suffering from 10 years of conflict and a lack of maintenance. The health system in Libya is not strong enough, and after the pandemic, it has become quite difficult to cope with.
In terms of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ICRC does not directly vaccinate Libyans, but we are training Libyan authorities on COVID-19 protective measures and helping distribute some protective materials to medical staff in prisons and detention centres.
These programmes are active in places where the ICRC has a presence, namely, Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, and Sabha in the south. Wherever we are, we provide some training for medical services and some training for the volunteers of the Libyan Red Crescent Society, which is our main partner in the country.
Regarding Sabha, can you elaborate on the humanitarian situation in the Libyan south and the ICRC’s role?
For us, Sabha is a place where we have only Libyan nationals working for us, we also have international staff that only visit for a day, as the security situation does not allow us yet to have international staff fully based there. Therefore, we have less capacity to provide assistance. Also, access to the South is a bit difficult, the main problem there is related to criminal gangs and less control over these areas.
Fortunately, Sabha and the south are not densely populated, compared to Libya’s coastal areas.
How do you view the upcoming elections in Libya?
This is the first ever presidential election to take place in the North African nation, we see the tension rising and we hope that these tensions can be absorbed so that no armed groups or any actors resort to violence, because civilians are going to pay the price as always.
The situation is very unpredictable, the situation today is not the same as it was a few days ago, so we are watching and are prepared for any scenarios.
It is in the DNA of the ICRC to talk to everybody, so we try to keep channels of communications open with all parties and actors.
How does the ICRC assist with the migrant situation in Libya?
We have a dialogue with the Libyan authorities, the EU, and member states on the humanitarian consequences of their migration policies. We do that bilaterally with all actors trying to demonstrate the fact that Libya is not a safe place for migrants to stay.
Also, we offer migrants the possibility of using the services of the ICRC when it comes to re-establishing family links; some of them have relatives that have been missing in the Mediterranean Sea, so we try to help them retrieve the bodies.
Moreover, migrants also benefit from the ICRC programmes in terms of support to hospitals and healthcare facilities.
In your opinion, what are the most urgent humanitarian needs in Libya and how can the international community assist in this regard?
There are two kinds of needs in Libya. Long-term needs, such as the health and water systems as well as the power network, which have been hardly maintained over the last few years. Therefore, the pressure on these systems is tremendous. The level of destruction in Southern Tripoli and downtown Benghazi is quite excessive. This will need long-term commitment from development actors to rebuild.
Next to that, Libya has some urgent needs in terms of the population trying to return to their homes and people who have lost their income due to losing the breadwinner of the family. So, there are several urgent needs for the people in Libya. I think that, at the moment, the most important thing for international actors is to try to decrease the tensions and avoid another phase of violence.
Violence always creates humanitarian consequences for the civilian population.
Can you elaborate on the ICRC’s family reunification efforts in Libya?
It is a very complex process as we have very different situations. You have migrants who have lost contact with their families back home, which means that we have to contact the ICRC or the Red Crescent Society to ensure that they find the family over there and then establish links.
If it is a tracing request for people who have gone missing during the conflict, we contact the branch or Red Crescent in the specific area to try to locate them. Sometimes, we receive allegations of arrests, so we go to the detaining authorities and request information about these alleged detainees.
The whole process includes efforts from the ICRC and Red Crescent and partners from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement all around the world who are at the receiving end of the migrant population.
Can you tell us about other ICRC programmes in Libya?
In Downtown Benghazi, there is a huge level of destruction. I have 25 years of ICRC experience in Afghanistan, Yemen, and many other places, but I have never seen this level of destruction.
Six years on, there have been no repairs and you can still see the destroyed water sewage system.
We have been working for months on a master plan to repair the sewage system in Benghazi. This sewage system will not be repaired by the ICRC alone, as it is already quite costly to draw the plan and make sure that it includes all parameters.
It will be up to us to bring it to the attention of the international financial institutions and developmental actors who would be willing to implement it with the Libyan authorities.
It is going to be a multiple-year project and it will be very costly; estimated at a few hundred million dollars.
We started getting in touch with international financiers like the World Bank, the French Development Agency, and the African Development Bank to promote the plan and share it once it is officially launched. It is expected to be ready by the end of 2022.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge that faces the ICRC in Libya?
For us, the biggest challenge is to ensure the safety of our staff in Libya, we do not walk with an armed escort, and we do not live in fortified compounds, we rely only on the acceptance of all the parties of the conflict.
It is working well for the moment, but the ICRC does not have a very long history in Libya. Therefore, it will take some time until we have the necessary guarantees for our staff to work.