Athens (AFP) - The UN refugee agency said Thursday it was encouraging migrants to leave a severely overcrowded Tripoli centre, but rejected as "offensive" a British daily report alleging it was "starving" asylum-seekers to force them out.
"I find that accusation offensive," UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi told reporters in Athens.
"I don't know where you read that report. Us, starving refugees and migrants in Libya? When my colleagues, day in, day out, risk their lives to access people that are often detained by criminal gangs?" he said.
The Guardian daily earlier Thursday said it had seen a document circulated among UN staff saying that UNHCR would "phase out" food catering in a Tripoli centre under its supervision from 31 December.
The Guardian said it had spoken to an aid worker who said "they’re just trying to starve them to motivate them to leave" and that hundreds "have apparently been without food for weeks".
Late Thursday, the UN agency confirmed that catering at the so-called Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) would be gradually halted as of the end of the year.
- 'Unsustainable' -
It explained that it was instead boosting its assistance in urban areas in Libya, which is a major transit route for migrants, because the situation at the centre had become "unsustainable".
The centre, which was opened a year ago as a transit centre for vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers who were destined to be transferred out of Libya, had become "severely overcrowded" since July when hundreds of people arrived from a bombed-out detention centre, it said.
Some 400 more had come from another detention centre, and another 200 from urban areas, meaning that the centre with a capacity to host 600 people was now hosting nearly double that number.
UNHCR said the overcrowding was hampering its "ability to evacuate the most acutely vulnerable refugees, for whom solutions outside of Libya have been found, out of detention centres and to safety."
UNHCR’s chief of mission for Libya, Jean-Paul Cavalieri, stressed in the statement that the agency welcomed that asylum-seekers and refugees had been released from detention by Libyan authorities, and said it would expand its programme supporting them "in urban areas so that they can get the help they need."
According to UNHCR, some 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers already live in urban areas in Libya, which has been mired in chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
"We hope that the GDF will be able to return to its original function as a transit facility for the most acutely vulnerable refugees, so we are able to evacuate them to safety,” Cavalieri said.
He acknowledged though that the facility had basically become an "open centre" for urban migrants and asylum-seekers, and said that the agency would continue to provide medical assistance and sanitation services there "for the foreseeable future, based on available resources."
But UNHCR said it would "phase out food catering at the GDF in the New Year," but would inform people who entered the centre "informally" about the urban assistance package.
"Those with a valid claim for international protection are being offered the urban assistance package to help them move out, including emergency cash for an initial two months, relief items, access to primary health care and medical referrals," it said.
The agency said 40 people had already agreed to this option, which did not rule out their eligibility to be evacuated or resettled outside of Libya.