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UNHCR halts work at Libya migrant center

The U.N. refugee agency said it was suspending operations at a migrant center in the Libyan capital of Tripoli due to safety concerns as violence intensifies.

The United Nations refugee agency said it was suspending operations at a migrant transit center in the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Thursday due to safety concerns as violence between two main warring factions intensifies.Officials with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said the severely overcrowded Gathering and Departure Facility had become too dangerous of an operation, both for migrants and staff. Libya has sunk into lawlessness since the 2011 uprising toppling and killing dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who ruled for 42 years.

“Unfortunately UNHCR was left with no choice but to suspend work at the Gathering and Departure Facility in Tripoli after learning that training exercises, involving police and military personnel, are taking place just a few meters away from units housing asylum seekers and refugees,” said Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR’s chief of mission in Libya.

“We fear that the entire area could become a military target, further endangering the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, and other civilians,” he said in a statement.

The U.N. agency said it had started moving dozens of people at the facility to safer locations, and would evacuate hundreds of other people to urban areas amid the escalating fighting between Libya’s civil war factions. That included 400 asylum seekers who evacuated a building complex in Tajoura that had housed a detention center for migrants and refugees.

Hopes to resume work

On Monday, a joint report from the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, or UNSMIL. and the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, called for accountability in the airstrikes targeting the building complex in Tajoura that killed at least 53 people last July.

The airstrikes came from an armed group, the Daman Brigade, allied with Libya’s prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and his U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, or GNA, the report said, though it was unclear if they were commanded by Libya’s army or another country.

The U.N. facility at Tripoli, controlled by local militias allied with GNA, held 1,200 migrants — double its capacity. Opposition forces led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar have been advancing on areas under GNA's control. A recent campaign displaced more than 150,000 people.

Close to 900 people entered the Tripoli facility since July, making it "severely overcrowded" and unable to function properly, according to UNHCR, which expressed serious concerns on January 2 after three mortar shells fell close to it and fragments landed near a warehouse inside the complex.

Since December 2018, almost 1,700 formerly detained refugees were evacuated from Libya through the GDF. But the place stunk with sewage and resembled a prison, and adequate food was lacking for everyone. Despite the halt in work at the facility, U.N. officials say they hope it can resume.

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