UNHCR chief and Libyan partner discuss protection for refugees in mixed migration flows

News Stories, 15 October 2009

© UNHCR/M.Alwash
A group of Africans who were trying to reach Europe from Libya before being pushed back by the Italian navy and turned over to the authorities in Tripoli. Some may have been refugees or asylum-seekers.

GENEVA, October 15 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has held talks with UNHCR's main partner in Libya on the pressing issue of ensuring protection for refugees and asylum-seekers caught in mixed migration flows from Africa to Europe.

Each year, thousands of people from sub-Saharan Africa risk their lives to reach Libya, where they hope to board smuggler's boats for the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Most are motivated by economic or family reasons, but many are fleeing persecution or war and are thus of concern to UNHCR.

Guterres and Gamal Al-Grable, a special envoy of the president of the International Organization for Peace, Care and Relief (IOPCR), met at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva earlier this week to discuss ways to further boost cooperation and to ensure that all refugees and asylum-seekers detained in migration flows in Libya receive the international protection they are entitled to.

"IOPCR has played a significant role in facilitating UNHCR's work in the country" since the two sides signed a partnership agreement in 2007, Guterres told Al-Grable. "While much has been done, both organizations recognize that it is important to increase our joint efforts to overcome the remaining difficulties with the aim of establishing a comprehensive asylum system in Libya."

Al-Grable also met Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller to discuss the mixed migration issue as well as UNHCR's presence and work in Libya. The two sides agreed to work together to improve reception facilities for people of concern to UNHCR and to seek durable solutions for them.

To date, the Tripoli-based IOPCR has helped UNHCR to secure the release of more than 630 people determined to be refugees or asylum-seekers. Moreover, the IOPCR helped UNHCR and other partners get permission to open offices in the south and east, where migration routes enter Libya. And last week, UNHCR was granted access to an additional seven detention centres, raising the total to 15 throughout the country. UNHCR is working with its partners to improve the living conditions in these centres.

Libya has come under criticism for its policies of detaining people caught in mixed migration flows, especially since Italy launched a push-back policy in the southern Mediterranean earlier this year. Italian naval vessels force intercepted boats to return to Libya, where those on board are detained.

UNHCR has on a number of occasions expressed serious concern about the impact of the push-back policy and has urged European Union member states not to turn away those who were in need of international protection.

Thanks to its agreements with Libya and the IOPCR, the UN refugee agency has been able as of the end of September to screen 890 people who were detained after being pushed back by the Italian navy. Of those, 206 were released and registered as refugees after saying they feared for their safety if sent back home.

UNHCR has been calling on countries to offer resettlement places for refugees in Libya for whom no other durable solutions are available. More than 250 have been identified as suitable for resettlement, including some refugees accepted by Italy earlier this year and waiting for their papers to be processed before leaving.

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UNHCR country pages

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Crisis in Libya

UNHCR is working with the Tunisian and Egyptian authorities and aid groups to manage the dramatic influx of tens of thousands of people fleeing Libya. By the beginning of March, two weeks after the violence erupted in Libya, more than 140,000 people had fled to the neighbouring countries, while thousands more were waiting to cross. Most are Egyptian and Tunisian nationals, though small numbers of Libyans and other nationalities are managing to escape. UNHCR is particularly concerned about thousands of refugees and other foreigners trapped inside Libya, especially people from sub-Saharan Africa. The following photo essay gives a glimpse into what is happening at the borders.

Crisis in Libya

UNHCR: An Appeal for AfricaPlay video

UNHCR: An Appeal for Africa

The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called for more attention and help for African nations dealing with new and old displacements.
Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa RefugeesPlay video

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa Refugees

The heads of UNHCR and the UN Development Programme visited Syrian refugees and joint projects in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. High Commissioner António Guterres said that the Syria crisis had become the worst humanitarian tragedy of our times.
Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat campPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat camp

Concluding a visit to Iraq, UNHCR chief António Guterres met with Syrian refugees in Arbat camp in the Kurdistan region. Guterres noted the recent proliferation of humanitarian crises, but urged the international community not to forget about Syria, "the mega protracted crisis of our times."