Tripoli, Libya – Outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, about 150 Sudanese men, women and children have been camped out since July.
They spend the nights out in the open, sleeping on the dry dirt as cars swish by, after a long, arduous journey from their war-torn homeland. They fled the violence hoping to find safety and a more secure future, but Libya itself is struggling, torn as it is between rival administrations and the unfettered power of rebel groups.
The circumstances they find themselves in now are difficult. One 16-year-old boy from Ethiopia, also camped out at the UNHCR building, died on Tuesday. Activists said he needed medical help but he was ignored and left on the street.
Al Jazeera contacted the UNHCR for comment but was not able to get a response.
Yet, the refugees still believe their encampment in the southwestern suburbs of Tripoli is safer than being back in Sudan.
“We fled our home fearing for our lives due to the horrendous armed clashes that erupted in our hometown in Sudan,” said Asia Abbas, a Sudanese refugee.
Asia arrived in Libya on July 5 with two of her children, the third was lost as the family was fleeing amid a hail of bullets.
Her only glimmer of hope now is to apply for refugee status with the UNHCR. But she is not sure how her family will survive on the street as winter draws closer with its cold, rainy nights.
The refugees did not travel together all the way from Sudan. Some walked over the land border between Sudan and Libya. Others initially escaped to Egypt, before finding smugglers who facilitated their passage to Tripoli.
“We initially fled to Cairo, but we were left disillusioned by the UNHCR in Egypt, as they provided us with no hope of reaching a safer country where we could offer our children better lives,” another refugee, a widow with four children, told Al Jazeera.
Even before the death of the Ethiopian boy, Ya Belaadi, a Libyan NGO dedicated to supporting refugees and migrants, issued a warning over the conditions the people were living in, according to Asia Jaafer, head of the programme department at Belaadi.
“In 2021, a Sudanese minor registered with the UNHCR perished due to exposure and heavy rains,” she added.
Sudanese refugees are entitled to support on account of the conflict they escaped in Sudan, which makes their return there impossible, Jaafer said.
She added that it is the responsibility of all relevant parties to provide a minimum degree of protection until a permanent solution is found.
“Both groups have the rights of asylum seekers, in accordance with local and international laws, seeking a solution for their predicament. I hold the UNHCR, which has been neglectful of them, (to be) more accountable than the Libyan authorities,” she said.
According to Jaafer, not all the Sudanese refugees in Libya are fleeing the recent conflict in Sudan between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and a faction of the Sudanese army – others escaped in previous years, fleeing a long-burning conflict in Darfur.
Not the first wave of Sudanese refugees
Among the refugees who spoke to Al Jazeera was Ibrahim Ahmed, a 17-year-old who fled the armed conflict in Darfur in 2017, alone.
“Libyan authorities detained me and others when we staged a protest in 2021, but the UNHCR managed to get us out. Now, I have reunited with my family and registered my case with the UNHCR,” he said.
Tarik Lamloum, an expert and researcher on refugees and migrants in Libya, pointed out that unaccompanied children were still entering Libya without their parents.
“Many refugees and displaced individuals from Sudan, mostly women and children, have crossed into the country via the Libyan-Sudanese border without adequate knowledge of the perilous routes ahead,” he said.
Many of those now sheltering outside the UNHCR building reached Tripoli after lengthy and hazardous routes undertaken on the advice of relatives who had successfully arrived.
The journey put many at risk, with refugees facing arbitrary detention and ill-treatment from either government authorities or rebel groups, exposing them to numerous dangers, including human trafficking.
In Tripoli, the UNHCR appears to be struggling to find some kind of solution to better protect those seeking their help, Lamloum said.
‘Right to asylum’
Shortfalls in UN funding have also added to the difficulty in resettling refugees or granting asylum, even in life-threatening situations, Ahlam Chemlali, a migration researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said.
“Sudanese refugees, like all refugees, have the right to asylum and protection,” Chemlali said,
“The dire situation in Tripoli is also mirrored in Tunisia, where refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are Sudanese, are camped outside the UNHCR.”
For now, the refugees will remain outside the UNHCR offices in Tripoli, waiting for formal recognition of their need for protection, safety and a future for their children.