Q&A: Fresh challenges in Libya for an expanded UNHCR team

Making a Difference, 16 March 2012

© Y. Bou Melhem
Emmanuel Gignac, UNHCR Chief of Mission in Libya.

TRIPOLI, Libya, March 17 (UNHCR) Just over a year after the launch of the uprising that toppled late Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi last August, problems of displacement remain in the North African country while the stream of people from sub-Saharan Africa arriving in Libya on mixed migration routes to Europe is picking up again. Some are refugees and asylum-seekers from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. Emmanuel Gignac arrived in Tripoli last September to head UNHCR office, resume operations and consolidate the agency's presence in the eastern city of Benghazi. UNHCR is waiting to establish a formal agreement with the new authorities, but there are many challenges to tackle, including helping refugees, returnees, the internally displaced and people at risk of statelessness. Gignac talked to UNHCR Web Editor Leo Dobbs in Tripoli about these issues. Excerpts from the interview:

What has been the main focus of UNHCR's work in Libya?

We have been very busy with the [internally] displaced people and third country nationals stranded in the country. That kept us preoccupied until December. Regarding the refugees, we have progressively resumed our activities. We have also been very busy with the Somalis [arriving in Libya on mixed migration routes], who are not yet recognized as refugees because we haven't resumed refugee status determination. And we haven't resumed registration documentation issuance because we're waiting to get our agreement with the authorities. We would like to work directly with the new Libyan authorities [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior] and see how we can assist in finding solutions for refugees.

We are also conducting, through universities, through civil society, sensitization sessions on refugee law, on UNHCR. This is an important area.

Tell us more about the internal displacement

The figures we have for internal displacement are constantly falling. The highest we had was more than 400,000 in August-September and now we're down to an estimated 93,000. In the east there are quite a number of displaced people in Benghazi, including many people from Tawergha, a town in the west from where pro-Gaddafi forces launched attacks during the siege of the nearby city of Misrata.

We have nine camps in Benghazi and either us or our partners are there on a daily basis. There are also 14 camps here in Tripoli and four also in Tarhuna. It's mostly Tawerghans in the camps, but we have other minorities still displaced, including the Gwelish and the Mashushyas. Basically, people from certain groups who remain displaced are said to have been Gaddafi loyalists and so it's a protection issue in the sense that it might not be safe for them to return home. It's a situation that will require reconciliation and it's not going to be quick.

In the south we have some pockets of displaced people, but much less than other places. But there is a problem related to the Tabu and the Tuareg people, where there is a strong possibility that quite a large number of people could be either stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. That's not per se an issue of displacement but it could become one if the Libyans decided that some Tabu or Tuareg who have been settled in Libya for the past 40 years should be sent back to Mali or Niger. We talk about statelessness because the children who were born in southern Libya during these years do not have a birth certificate from Libya and they don't have one from Mali.

What about the refugees?

We have presently registered in our database 9,400 refugees and asylum-seekers. [These people were registered prior to last year's uprising]. The refugees account for about 6,600, while the remaining 2,700 are asylum-seekers. The majority are still here, most of them in Tripoli. Some are in Misrata, some are in Benghazi. From an initial total of 10,600 registered people of concern, some 1,200 left Libya during the uprising and were registered at Choucha camp in Tunisia or Sallum in Egypt.

The largest group of registered refugees is the Iraqis, followed by the Palestinians. Then come Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis. I believe most of the Iraqis came during [President] Saddam Hussein's rule; we're talking about 3,100 refugees and asylum-seekers. The Palestinians are officially the second largest group, with 2,700, but reports say there could be up to 40,000.

We stopped doing new registrations in June 2010. A crisis arose when the government at the time asked UNHCR to leave the country. A high-level mission came from Geneva and they negotiated a new arrangement which meant we no longer registered, but just looked after the group of people we had already. We still lack an agreement with the authorities.

Have more Syrians been arriving?

Before, there were large numbers of Syrians in the country for work. I think there were 90,000 of them. The vast majority left during the uprising . . . There must be over 2,000 people who have been registered by Syrian organizations here and in Benghazi. So it's not a huge number. But the indications from checking border crossing data from February to December 2011 at Egypt's Sallum border crossing indicate that there could be 10,000 Syrians right now in Libya.

Is the mixed migration traffic through Libya growing again?

It is indeed. In the south, the whole issue of mixed migration [through Libya and across the Mediterranean] to Europe is growing. The two main catchment areas for people coming from sub-Saharan Africa are Sabha and Kufra. Sabha is in the western part of the southern belt and Kufra is in the east.

We always had people coming through here. During the crisis we had a precarious situation at Sidi Bilal, a little fishing port [near Tripoli] where a group of about 900 [migrants from sub-Saharan Africa] were living under boats . . . Some of these people had been in Libya before the conflict, but a lot of them had arrived recently. We've seen also a constant trickle of Somalis arriving from Sabha and now more from Kufra going up to Benghazi and then travelling to Tripoli.

So the movement has been there, but it's clear the number is increasing. In January, we had seven boats that set out. Two made it [one to Italy's Lampedusa Island and the other to Malta], while four were brought back by the Libyan coastguard. Unfortunately, one capsized and we believe the entire group drowned. Fifteen bodies were recovered from a boat that may have carried up to 50 people. I think that because there is little capacity to control the borders in the south, we will see the phenomena continuing to pick up.

We know of about 600 migrants, asylum-seekers who are being held in the detention centre at Kufra. We are looking at ways to help evacuate them to Benghazi [because of fighting in the area between the Tabu and an Arab tribe].

Most are from sub-Saharan Africa?

Yes. We see a lot of people from Nigeria, a lot people from Niger, from Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Central Africa also, some from Congo, and then we have the Eritreans still coming, the Sudanese. We have Sudanese from Darfur, and elsewhere. And Somalis of course.

But we also have had people from Bangladesh using these mixed migration routes. Quite a number of them appear to be flying first to Sudan. We had a group of over 200 in Benghazi and another group showed up recently in Kufra. They are coming for jobs and they are willing to go through any hardship. They want to stay here.

We have been advocating with the authorities for a blanket policy for all foreigners, to give them temporary protection or documents enabling them to remain here and work, whether it's three months, six months, nine months . . . It would be good to take time to develop a proper migration framework and a policy and have particular provisions for asylum-seekers. You don't want to do this in a rush. What you need to do quickly, is find ways to deal with the problems of irregular migrants, including asylum-seekers, being detained.

Tell us more about migrants being arrested

We were very much concerned during the events of September, October [when some people from sub-Saharan Africa were accused of being pro-Gaddafi, because the late Libyan ruler had used mercenaries from other parts of the continent]. The issue was very sensitive.

Of course it was stretched much too far to the extent that anybody who looked like they were from sub-Saharan Africa was at risk of arrest, especially if they did not have any documentation . . . But quite a number of them were from the mixed migration flows, people here in an irregular situation without proper documentation. Most of them were arrested. We had Somalis arriving at the time, we accommodated them in a compound and they're still there right now.

We are strongly advising that they [the transitional authorities] don't return Somalis, for instance, and they do understand that . . . I hope we can start a temporary system where we have at least a few processing centres where people would be brought.

Given that they need foreign workers we are trying to tell them that for those people who are willing to stay here and work, give them a temporary permit. At this point we are not even telling them to give asylum-seekers a different paper . . . Whether they are economic migrants or potential refugees, let's have a single document that allows them to work, stay temporarily and be here legally and have basic protection.

The UNHCR operation has grown. Tell us more

The international staff in our office in Tripoli were evacuated late February last year and all national staff were asked to stay at home, but some courageous staff were coming to the office voluntarily to ensure that we remained in contact with the refugees, linking up with our partner Al Wafa to help the refugees. The office began growing from September. Before, there were three international staff. Now we have 11 international staff and slightly more than 20 national staff in Tripoli. In Benghazi, we have five international staff and seven or eight national staff.

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