Libya: heads of UN agencies warn of threats posed by conflict, COVID-19

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NEW YORK, GENEVA, ROME, MAY 13 – Conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic present a significant threat to life in Libya. The health and safety of the country’s entire population are at risk, the heads of the UN’s principal humanitarian bodies warned in a joint statement released today.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, the Executive Directors of UNICEF Henrietta Fore, of the UN Population Fund Dr. Natalia Kanem, of the World Food Programme David Beasley, the Director-General of World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and the Director General of International Organization for Migration António Vitorino, noted with dismay that close to 400,000 Libyans have been displaced since the start of the conflict nine years ago – around half of them within the past year, since the attack on the capital, Tripoli, started.

Despite repeated calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, including by the United Nations Secretary-General, hostilities continue unabated, hindering access and the delivery of critical humanitarian supplies.  Humanitarian workers face significant challenges every day to carry on with their mission. In March 2020, humanitarian partners reported a total of 851 access constraints on movement of humanitarian personnel and humanitarian items within and into Libya, the UN agencies’ heads stated.

In their view, the situation for many migrants and refugees is especially alarming. Since the start of this year, more than 3,200 people have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya. Many end up in one of the eleven official detention centers. Others are taken to facilities or unofficial detention centers to which the humanitarian community does not have access. The United Nations has repeatedly reiterated that Libya is not a safe port and that persons rescued at sea should not be returned to arbitrary detention.

Women and children continue to bear the brunt of the ongoing armed conflict in Libya: over the past year, the United Nations verified 113 cases of grave violations, including killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools, and health facilities. Hospitals and health facilities have been targeted by shelling, further disrupting Libya’s fragile health system. Since the beginning of the year, at least 15 attacks have damaged health facilities and ambulances and injured health care workers. These attacks are a blatant violation of international humanitarian law and even more egregious during the COVID-19 pandemic, the heads of the agencies said.

The onset of the coronavirus in Libya poses yet another strain on the already overstretched health system, and further threatens the most vulnerable people in the country.  As of May 13, there were 64 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including three deaths, in different parts of the country. This shows that local/community transmission is taking place.  The risk of further escalation of the outbreak is very high.

Food security, already a challenge, is being compromised by the spread of COVID-19 and its socioeconomic impact on Libyan families, the joint statement remarks: “Latest market assessments show that most cities are facing shortages of basic food items coupled with an increase in prices. Limited market availability of goods and higher prices are impacting plans, as are supply chain disruptions. Continued support to food security inside the country is essential so that this health crisis does not worsen by becoming a food crisis”.

The UN leaders urge all parties to the conflict to protect vital water supply facilities: “We are acutely alarmed that water facilities have been deliberately targeted or indiscriminately attacked. This affects thousands of women and children and impedes efforts to implement basic virus prevention measures, such as hand-washing”. They also expressed support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire and a humanitarian pause to save lives and enable the Libyan authorities and their partners to devote their energies to stopping the spread of COVID-19: “The international community must not turn a blind eye to the conflict in Libya and its catastrophic effect on civilians, including migrants and refugees, across the country”. (@OnuItalia)