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UN Agency Halts Operations at Troubled Libya Migrant Center

FILE - Libyans inspect a damaged building following a reported airstrike in the capital Tripoli's suburb of Tajoura, Dec.29, 2019.
FILE - Libyans inspect a damaged building following a reported airstrike in the capital Tripoli's suburb of Tajoura, Dec.29, 2019.

The U.N.'s refugee agency in Libya announced Thursday it is suspending its operations at a jam-packed migrant facility over safety concerns as deadly fighting near the capital intensifies.

The U.N. first opened its transit center in Tripoli as an alternative to Libya's notorious detention sites for migrants ostensibly awaiting repatriation or resettlement. Detention facilities in Libya, run by a patchwork of militias, have become synonymous with the abuse and exploitation of desperate asylum-seekers at the hands of fighters and smugglers.

But even the U.N. center in Tripoli, known as Gathering and Departure Facility, soon became a complex and dangerous operation.

In December, The Associated Press reported on conditions at the facility, which presented an increasingly urgent problem for the U.N., and the people inside.

In a statement explaining the closure, the UNHCR chief of mission cited police and military training exercises taking place just a few meters (yards) from the migrants' living quarters. Earlier this month, errant mortar shells landed in the compound.

"We fear that the entire area could become a military target, further endangering the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, and other civilians," said Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR's chief of mission in Libya.

Although on paper a U.N.-run facility, the center was effectively controlled by powerful local militias loosely allied with the Tripoli-based government. It held 1,200 migrants, including hundreds seeking refuge from abuse at other detention centers, more than double its capacity.

"With close to 900 individuals entering the GDF spontaneously since July, it became severely overcrowded and is no longer functioning as a transit center," Cavalieri acknowledged in the statement.

Dozens of patients with tuberculosis languished in filthy rooms. Sewage overflowed. Armed guards turned the center into a prison. People went hungry as the U.N. warned that even emergency rations would be cut Jan. 1 for unapproved arrivals.

In preparation for closure, the UNHCR said it would relocate dozens of refugees slated for resettlement from the facility "to safer locations," without elaborating. It promised to evacuate hundreds of others to ``urban areas'' in Libya, including 400 asylum-seekers who had fled a detention center hit by airstrikes in a deadly attack last July. All migrants would receive cash and medical assistance from the UNHCR.

"Other important aspects of our work in Libya continue at full pace and we hope to be able to resume our work at the GDF once safe to do so," Cavalieri said.

Libya descended into chaos after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The fighting also transformed Libya, which sits on Africa's Mediterranean coast, into a haven for extremists and a major conduit for migrants making perilous journeys to Europe.

Despite a cease-fire and intensifying international efforts to end the conflict, violence has only escalated as eastern-based opposition forces lay siege to Tripoli in a bid to wrest power from the U.N.-backed government. The most recent offensive has displaced over 150,000 people.