A wave of violence between militia groups vying for power is sweeping across parts of Libya, prompting international organizations to put forth an ambitious plan to provide humanitarian aid to 85,000 people by the end of this year. Yet concerns remain over the feasibility of such an operation, given the security risks, access issues and communication problems.
Since May at least 165,000 Libyans have fled their homes, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as the capital Tripoli has been rocked by clashes. This is in addition to over 55,000 people who have been displaced since the Western-backed military overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, many of whom have now been re-displaced.
Last week the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) sent their second aid convoy into the country from Tunisia, delivering food and materials to 6,700 people in the western Libyan areas of Zintan, Gharyan and Tarhuna.
The organizations say this is the start of a much larger programme, with UNHCR aiming to reach 85,000 people by the end of the year - including in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Few aid workers on the ground
There are numerous reasons why this might be a challenge. The first is the small number of humanitarian actors with staff on the ground. Following Gaddafi’s overthrow, oil-rich Libya was thought to be less in need of aid than other Arab countries. Huge amounts of newly unfrozen reserves were earmarked for development and humanitarian support, with traditional donors such as the European Commission’s humanitarian aid body ECHO not seeing the country as a priority.
This trend for disengagement has been exacerbated by worsening security. In May, fighting between different militia groups erupted in and around Benghazi and more recently in Tripoli and the surrounding areas, causing aid organizations to review their staff security. International organizations, including many UN agencies, have withdrawn most of their employees to neighbouring Tunisia because of the surge in violence.
Laure Chadraoui, spokesperson for WFP, said this causes logistical problems when planning major aid deliveries. “Availability of reliable cooperating partners remains a major challenge,” she said.
WFP and the UN are now operating through local organizations such as Taher Al-Zawi and the few international NGOs that remain active on the ground, such as the International Medical Corps (IMC), but doubts remain over their ability to scale up their operations unless fighting eases.
Amid ongoing clashes, reaching the displaced can become nearly impossible. “It’s all because of the heavy fighting,” said Abdulrahman Alfetouri, field coordinator on the ground for IMC. “[In many cases] we couldn’t reach [civilians] through the roads that are mainly used by the sides leading this fight,” he said. WFP’s Chadraoui admitted the armed conflict between groups poses “significant operational constraints” on aid delivery.
This is made worse by the fractured nature of the fighting. The country now has two rival parliaments - the internationally-recognized House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk and the General National Congress in Tripoli, which accuses its rival of being illegitimate. The two have supported separate sides of a five-week battle for Tripoli’s main airport. Across the country there are dozens of rebel brigades, many of them relatively newly-formed and not used to dealing with aid workers.
“Unfortunately because of the lack of knowledge [of] those fighters [of] humanitarian organizations, they don’t always… let us go through them to reach the wounded people,” Alfetouri said.
To ease such concerns before going into any conflict area, aid organizations on the ground aim to negotiate with community leaders in the area to “talk to their fighters in the checkpoints”, Alfetouri said. Chadraoui added that they were constantly working in coordination with the UN and local partners to negotiate access.
According to Alfetouri, while getting to the eastern city of Benghazi - where there are an estimated 33,650 displaced people - is possible, lengthy discussions will be needed to coordinate with local leaders in eastern Libya.
Communication with partner organizations on the ground is already difficult, according to Francois de la Roche, Libya country director for IMC, based outside the country. There is a constant “back and forth” to make sure operations continue, he said, but admitted that having aid operations directed from outside Libya causes logistical issues.
“I’m sure these divided teams will have something of an effect on these operations. You know they won’t go as smoothly as if we’re all together and we’re all operating together,” he said.
“It’s [communication] a bit hard because of many factors,” Alfetouri said, pointing out that power cuts in Tripoli have been up to 19 hours per day, making it hugely challenging to maintain regular contact with IMC headquarters.
While reaching those in need will remain a challenge, analysts agree that a lasting solution to the violence is the top priority.
“I don’t see Libya as really needing aid that much,” said Jason Pack, president of libyanalysis.com and a researcher at Cambridge University in the UK. “It is more a PR gesture [on part of the UN] than what the Libyans actually need aid,” he said.
According to Pack, what is more important is to reach a long-term solution to end the fighting. He believes that the international community must engage with the country to mediate and push for a deal between the various groups vying for power in Libya.
The UN, European Union and 13 nations called for a ceasefire in Libya between the rival parties, with talks beginning on 29 September. The discussions aims to facilitate consensus on how to achieve a democratic transition in the country, but various rebel groups have denounced the talks.