Melissa Phillips at a detention centre for migrants, Libya ©Danish Refugee Council
“There needs to be some resettlement opportunities for refugees in Libya, because until such time they will continue to get on boats, as their only chance of finding permanent protection”
In a country with neither a migration and asylum system nor a legitimate police force, migrants and asylum seekers in Libya are often marginalised, ill-treated and at risk of being arbitrarily detained. Melissa Phillips from the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Libya has spoken to the ECRE Weekly Bulletin about the lack of protection for refugees and migrants in Libya, why many see no choice but to take boats to reach a safe place and the impact of EU policies in the country.
DRC works in the cities of Tripoli and Sabha, providing assistance and support to asylum seekers and refugees as well as to migrants in detention centres and in local communities.
How are refugees and migrants treated in Libya?
Most foreigners have had to come to Libya through unauthorized means and are usually undocumented, except for a small proportion of people who arrived in the country with a work visa or whose employers have arranged a visa. Some of these people are migrants who are looking for work and who just want to earn some money on a temporary or seasonal basis and go back home. Some have come to Libya in search of protection and they tend to be from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and increasingly from Syria.
However Libya does not have a migration and asylum system and there is no distinction between asylum seekers and migrants. Most people are just treated as ‘undocumented’ but different groups face different risks.
People who are seeking asylum can register with the UNHCR but this offers them few, if any, guarantees of safety in the community. There is no formal resettlement programme and no opportunity for protection in Libya because those documents are not recognised by the Libyan authorities.
“Libya does not have a migration and asylum system. People who are seeking asylum can register with the UNHCR but this offers them few, if any, guarantees of safety in the community ”
Furthermore, there is a lot of hostility and attacks towards refugees and migrants and they feel unsafe reporting incidents to the authorities. The Danish Refugee Council has found that most migrants and refugees identify their biggest source of insecurity as Libya and Libyans. They fear reporting violence because it would be like reporting to the perpetrators. Attitudes towards migrants and refugees have a long history related to its migration patterns and the way that Gaddafi, both encouraged migration but also used migrant workers as his mercenaries. Since the Revolution Libya has a transitional government and there is no real police force. Even if I had a problem there would be no police to go to in order to report a crime, most of the issues are dealt with at a local level or between families. A lot of people have little confidence in Libya’s authorities.
In addition, a large proportion of migrants and refugees are detained. According to our research, the conditions and treatment that certain communities receive in Libya are so adverse that it makes them to want to move on. Detention, arbitrary arrest and discrimination can add up to a feeling that life in Libya does not offer people security and they then try to look for ways to move on because the country does not offer them protection.
“There is a lot of hostility and attacks towards migrants in Libya. They feel unsafe reporting violence, because it is like reporting to the perpetrators”
Has the situation for migrants and refugees improved or deteriorated after the revolution?
In some ways things for them have become worse because of the degenerating security situation in the country. This means that they are more vulnerable to militia groups or attacks by individuals.
Where does Libya stand regarding the establishment of a system for migration and asylum?
Libya has not signed the Refugee Convention, it has only signed the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention. One NGO has drafted a refugee law that is now being revised by the government so as to initiate a system of recognising the unique protection needs of refugees. A migration system is certainly one of many things the country realises it needs to set up, but Libya is a transforming country and this is just one of many things on its agenda. So while there are organisations like the International Organisation for Migration and the European Union which are there to support the development of these systems, I am just not sure yet how much of a priority these issues are in Libya at the present time.
“One of the reasons detention centre managers give us for detaining migrants is that they want to stop them getting on boats bound for Europe”
What is the impact of European policies on Libya’s treatment of migrants?
For a long time under Gaddafi, the country was implementing arrangements on behalf of European countries with whom they had bilateral agreements, such as Italy. Even today, we find that one of the reasons detention centre managers give us for detaining migrants is that they want to stop them getting on boats bound for Europe. So Libya sees itself as playing a helpful role in stopping people from reaching Europe, due to past interventions by individual European countries and due to the rhetoric on unauthorised arrivals in Europe, as asylum seekers and migrants are often presented as a problem that must be stopped.
European policies have an influence on Libya’s punitive measures, in particular on the detention of people who are perceived as a potential risk of moving on. Also, there is not much discussion in Europe at the moment around safe and legal channels to reach Europe and increasing resettlement as well as easier ways to apply for visas, and this does not set a good example for Libya.
“There is not much discussion in Europe around safe and legal channels for people to reach the territory and this does not set a good example for Libya”
What can the EU and its Member States do in order to improve the situation of refugees and migrants currently living in Libya?
All the attention at the moment has been brought disproportionately on Libya because of the increasing numbers of people getting on boats to reach Europe. The EU and its Member States need to look at the issues from a Libyan perspective and understand the migration and refugee picture in Libya.
In order to improve the situation, the EU and its Member States could support the initiatives of drafting a refugee law and developing a migration system. The EU could also present some good examples regarding detention conditions and safeguards.
The EU Border Assistance and Frontex missions are perhaps some of the most visible aspects of European interventions in Libya and they have to be complemented with protection measures rather than purely focusing on approaches that control or deter migration.
The EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya is about improving Libya’s controls at borders, which is an important thing and something that Libya definitely would like and needs. However, this must to be accompanied by other measures that focus on protection, for instance, how to treat vulnerable people and how to treat women and children.
We do not want these missions to make it harder for people to seek protection, these missions should help Libyans understand the different communities and the way they can improve on efforts to assist people. Currently all people (migrants and refugees) are seen as having the same intentions, but we would like to see a more sophisticated approach, whereby distinctions between asylum seekers and migrants are made to bring about a changed understanding of why people come to Libya and what their needs are.
Civil society training would also help to ensure that the Libyan community has a better understanding of the needs of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees and why they come to Libya. Many sub-Saharan Africans simply want to come to Libya to work and go back home, so they are making an economic contribution to Libyan society while they are in the country. This is not very well understood in Libya.
Importantly, Europe should look at North Africa in a holistic way and try to develop standards and conditions across the region. Problems will move across countries in the region, for example to Tunisia, if a regional approach is not taken.
“Problems will move across countries in the region, for example to Tunisia, if a regional approach is not taken”
What can be done by the EU as well as North African states to prevent further loss of lives of migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe?
It is important to look at why people move – the EU and its Member States should look at the situation of refugees and other migrants in Libya and across North Africa. Most Eritreans, Somalis or Syrians have no options in Libya. Registration with UNHCR does not guarantee protection and if you are undocumented and have no papers to move on, you have no other option but to get on boats. Many people try first unsuccessfully to find protection nearby their home country, or apply for visas.
This approach of analysing why people move should result in some better adjusted policies and programmes, which can be capacity building, training, providing lessons from other contexts and regions Also, there certainly needs to be some resettlement opportunities for refugees in Libya, because until such time they will continue to get on boats, as their only chance of finding a permanent protection.
“Most Eritreans, Somalis or Syrians have no options in Libya – registration with UNHCR does not guarantee protection and if you are undocumented and you have no papers to move on, you have no other option but to get on boats”