3-7-2011By Eleanor Acer
Director, Refugee Protection Program
The International Community Should Condemn Attacks On African Migrants and Refugees in Libya and Urge Libyan Forces not to Block Departures
On Monday March 7, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed a steep drop in the number of individuals leaving Libya, and expressed their concern that Libyan forces may be preventing people from leaving Libya.
Last week, UNHCR had reported that more than 90,000 people had fled from western Libya into Tunisia and another 80,000 to Egypt since antigovernment protests in Libya descended into violence in mid-February. The overwhelming majority of these individuals are reportedly migrant workers. Some are refugees from other countries who had been staying in Libya. During a single 24-hour stretch last week, an estimated 9,000 people crossed into Tunisia. But on Friday March 4, UNHCR reported a sharp drop in the numbers of people crossing from Libya into Tunisia, and over the weekend, departures were reported to have fallen to 2000 a day.
On Thursday March 3, the Obama Administration announced that it was providing assistance to those fleeing from Libya. President Obama said that the United States was sending military aircraft to help Egyptians who fled to Tunisia to get back home to Egypt, and had authorized USAID to charter civilian aircraft to help people from other countries to get home. He also said that the United States was “supporting the efforts of international organizations to evacuate people as well.” The UNHCR and IOM, in consultation with the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, had called on the international community to support a massive emergency humanitarian evacuation in order to relieve pressure at the Tunisian border.
Meanwhile, there have been deeply disturbing reports that Sub-Saharan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have been targeted, attacked and detained in Libya. At Human Rights First, we have received urgent inquiries on behalf of a number of African refugees who were staying in Libya, but were in hiding in Libya because of concerns that they would be attacked by groups or individuals who are targeting African migrants and refugees in the wake of reports that the Gaddafi regime has hired some Africans as mercenaries.
As world leaders seek ways to address this humanitarian emergency, they should also call for the protection of African migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who are still within Libya and support for efforts to allow these individuals to flee to safety.
UNHCR’s Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie stressed in a statement last week that “it is critical that all parties respect the fundamental right of people in danger to flee to safety – whether civilians caught in conflict in their own country or refugees and asylum seekers caught in new conflicts,” Jolie said. “All I’m asking is that civilians be protected, and not targeted or harmed.”
In addition to urging that migrants, refugees and other civilians be protected, the international community should take other steps to help address this humanitarian emergency – including to (1) urge Libyan forces to allow people who wish to leave Libya to do so, and (2) respond to and support UNHCR and IOM appeals for resources to address the situation. In addition, resettlement states should assist refugees who have been living in Libya and are in need of durable solutions.
Human Rights First’s backgrounder outlines some of the obligations of states to ensure that refugees and other migrants fleeing Libya receive the protection to which they are entitled under international law.