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UNHCR expelled from Libya

The following post supplements a previous ILO post by myself (May, 4) on Italy’s “push-back” policy, titled Italy’s asylum policy violates international law (click here). For more information, see also a column published in Human Rights Brief, (2010) Vol. 17(3), titled The European Court of Human Rights scrutinizes Italy’s asylum policy (click here).

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operating in Libya received an order from Libyan authorities to cease its work and leave the country.

The UN refugee agency is working in Libya since 1991 and, since Libya itself has no asylum procedure or institutions, is responsible for thousands of refugees in the country. The agency screens asylum seekers arriving in Libya and determines whether they qualify for refugee status according to the UNHCR Statute. About 9,000 refugees have been registered and about 3,700 asylum seekers are waiting for an asylum procedure. Many of those people are Africans in search of a better life, trying to reach European shores by boat, with Libya only as a transit country. A large number of those boat refugees are intercepted by EU member state Italy (as well as member states Greece and Spain) and sent back to countries like Libya, with few human rights guarantees.

The UNHCR strongly regrets the decision to ‘expel’ the agency, especially because no reason was given by the authorities for why the agency can no longer carry out its activities. However, the Foreign Ministry stated that UNHCR’s operations in Libya are illegal. Libyan authorities in Geneva, where UNHCR is headquartered, gave no comments on the situation. Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman of the UNHCR, said the agency is currently negotiating with Libya. It is hoped that the expulsion is only temporary.

Libya is no party to the international refugee convention of 1951 (see here), which prohibits states in its article 33 to return individuals to countries where they risk being persecuted on grounds such as race or religion. Nevertheless, the prohibition of refoulement to countries where the person concerned risks persecution or torture, constitutes international customary law, binding upon all states (see here). Therefore, while Libya itself has no asylum system for the examination of asylum seekers’ situations, refusing to allow UNHCR to carry out its activities in Libya would amount to a violation of international human rights law.

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