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Libya: Country must allow UN refugee agency back in

Amnesty International deeply regrets the Libyan authorities’ decision to expel the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from the country - leaving thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers without any protection.

The organisation is appealing to the Libyan leader Colonel M’uammar al-Gaddafi to rescind this decision, allow the UNHCR to operate in Libya, and sign a memorandum of understanding with the agency.

Yesterday’s announcement by the UNHCR that the Libyan authorities had ordered it to leave the country further highlights the urgent need to address human rights concerns in Libya in relation to the treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, said Amnesty. The timing could not have been more significant given the negotiations between Libya and the EU currently taking place in Tripoli over bilateral cooperation in a number of fields, including the control of irregular migration.

The UNHCR has been in Libya since 1991, but operating without a formal memorandum of understanding - which has impeded its ability to carry out protection work. The office closure news brings to light the precarious conditions under which the UNHCR was operating and stresses the need not only to repeal the decision, but also to formalise UNHCR’s presence in Libya. Instead of undermining the UNHCR, the Libyan authorities should strengthen its presence, which is helping them deal with the flux of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.  

In the absence of an asylum system in Libya, the UNHCR has been fulfilling an essential role in conducting refugee status determination interviews, including screening individuals pushed back from Italy under bilateral agreements. Thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya are now left in a state of limbo, warned Amnesty, with no possibility of presenting their claims for asylum.
Even with the presence of the UNHCR, the situation of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants - particularly those from Sub-Saharan Africa - remains of acute concern in Libya. They live in constant fear: fear of being arrested and placed in detention centres indefinitely; fear of being beaten and abused; and fear of being expelled to an uncertain future.
Despite the constraints under which the UNHCR operated, the agency played a positive role in improving the protection afforded to thousands of people in Libya. As of January 2010, 8,951 refugees and 3,689 asylum-seekers were registered with the UNHCR in Libya. It was also engaged in the resettlement of refugees from Libya to third countries, and in recent years has been referring increased numbers of refugees for resettlement.

The UNHCR’s departure will also have a negative impact on the well-being of some of the neediest refugees and asylum-seekers in urban areas, whom the UNHCR was assisting with living allowances, housing, medical assistance and other support. In its absence, they will have to fend for themselves as the Libyan authorities do not grant them residence papers, the right to work or any allowance.

The move to expel the UNHCR comes against the backdrop of the seventh round of negotiations (which started on 6 June in Tripoli), between Libya and the EU over a Framework Agreement, addressing bilateral cooperation in the control of irregular migration, among other issues, including potential readmission agreements for third-country nationals, who have transited through Libya on their way to Europe.

EU member states, most notably Italy, have been seeking Libya’s assistance in decreasing the flow of arrivals of asylum-seekers and migrants to European shores. The expulsion of the UNHCR casts further doubt on Libya’s commitment to respect its obligations under the Organisation of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. It also shows how essential it is to include effective human rights safeguards and adequate standards of protection in any bilateral agreements with Libya in the field of the control of migration.

Amnesty calls on EU member states not to turn a blind eye on reports of torture or other ill-treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya. Against the backdrop of impunity that prevails in Libya, where no public official is known to have been prosecuted for torturing or otherwise abusing foreign nationals, EU states should not ignore Libya’s continual insistence that there are no refugees or asylum-seekers in its territory; and its refusal to ratify the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

In order for the situation in Libya to improve meaningfully, Amnesty stressed that Libya’s international partners need to ensure that the UNHCR is not only allowed to resume its activities in Libya, but that its presence in the country is guaranteed through a formal memorandum of understanding and that concrete measures are taken to put an end to human rights violations against refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The Libyan authorities deny the presence of refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, arguing that all foreign nationals in its territory are there for economic reasons.

The Libyan authorities continue to arrest and indefinitely detain individuals they suspect of being irregular migrants including nationals of Eritrea and Somalia. Amid reports regarding the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in detention centres designed to hold those believed to be irregular migrants in Libya, and the abuse they face at the hands of Libyan law-enforcement officials, the UNHCR had gradually gained access to 15 such detention centres across Libya. Along with its Libyan partners, it has visited the centres and conducted refugee status determination interviews. It has also helped secure the releases of hundreds of Somali and Eritrean nationals from detention centres in Libya.

Following the UNHCR’s spokesperson’s statement that no reasons were given by the Libyan authorities for the closure of its office, the General People’s Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation (or foreign affairs ministry) issued a communiqué on 8 June arguing that the UNHCR was operating illegally in Libya. The statement stressed that the Libyan authorities did not recognise the UNHCR’s presence as Libya is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The statement went on to say that in 2001, the Libyan authorities had allowed a UNHCR representative to work within the framework of development programmes to address a “particular problem”. The statement emphasised that work carried out by the UNHCR subsequently was illegal and expressed its surprise at such actions by “a representative of an international organisation which is under the obligation to comply by international law and respect the sovereignty of a state and its choices”. 

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