Scapegoats of Fear: Rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Abused in Libya

June 19, 2013

Scapegoats of Fear: Rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Abused in Libya

Nearly a year after the first elections in post-Gaddafi Libya, the human rights of tens of thousands of foreign nationals, including asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, continue to be routinely violated.

In a context of political instability and lawlessness, foreign nationals, mainly from sub- Saharan Africa, are at constant risk of exploitation, arrest and indefinite detention pending deportation. Those without "proper documentation" are particularly vulnerable as Libyan legislation criminalizes entering, staying in or leaving Libya irregularly. When Amnesty International delegates were in Libya in April and May 2013, approximately 1,700 detained asylum-seekers were held indefinitely in poorly resourced "holding centres". The situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in Libya is particularly precarious as Libya widely resorts to their detention in breach of international law and the country still lacks an asylum system and national asylum legislation.

Libya continues to be heavily reliant on foreign workers, especially in the agriculture and construction sectors as well as the services industry. Despite this, the authorities have failed to develop a coherent migration policy to protect the rights of these workers and regularize their status. Such failures mean that abuses against migrant workers thrive with impunity.

Following the mass exodus of foreign nationals from Libya during the armed conflict in 2011, migration flows into Libya appear to have resumed. Once again, the country is a magnet destination for people, particularly sub-Saharan Africans and North African and Middle Eastern nationals, who are looking for economic opportunities or for international protection as they flee persecution, violence and armed conflicts in the region and beyond.

Further, many thousands of individuals arrive in Libya every year in the hope of continuing their journey to European shores. At the end of April 2013, the Libyan Coast Guard noted an increase since the beginning of the year in the number of people leaving by boat to Europe, stating that some 650 people had been intercepted at sea in the beginning of May and handed over to detention centres overseen by Libya's Department of Combating Irregular Migration (DCIM), which is under the Ministry of Interior. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, 24 boats carrying some 2,500 people from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan had departed from the Libyan coast towards Europe since the beginning of March. Four of the boats were turned back by the Libyan Coast Guard as they embarked on the journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

At the same time, the Libyan authorities seem to have stepped up their efforts to combat "irregular migration". By the end of 2012, the General National Congress (GNC), the first elected body of Libya issued a decision to seal the country's borders with Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan and declared the country's southern regions as closed military areas subject to "special measures". The decision was mainly driven by security considerations and had the stated aim of reducing arms and human trafficking. However, it also empowered the military commander in the south to arrest "wanted persons" and deport "infiltrators" across the border.

In January 2013, the Ministry of Interior announced the introduction of visas for all foreigners wishing to enter the country. A month later, the Libyan authorities introduced new visa rules requiring Egyptians to apply ahead of time. The new regulation affected, among others, tens of thousands of Egyptian migrant workers and residents of the border town of Salloum, who initiated sit-ins at the border in protest. Around the same time, the Ministry of Labour stated that it would take tough measures against any foreign national found to be in Libya "irregularly", and announced the halting of all procedures related to the entry of foreign workers to Libya until the labour market was regulated.