UNHCR says ordered to close office in Libya

News Stories, 8 June 2010

© UNHCR/M.Alwash
A group of boat people after being turned over to authorities in Tripoli by the Italian navy last year.

GENEVA, June 8 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday it had been told by the government of Libya to close its office in that country and halt activities.

Speaking at a press briefing in Geneva, UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists that UNHCR was hoping the closure would be temporary and that negotiations to find a solution were continuing. However, she indicated that until the matter was resolved there would be difficulties in meeting vital refugee needs.

"We regret this decision as we believe UNHCR has a great deal of work to do in Libya to protect, assist and find durable solutions for the refugees there," Fleming said. "This will leave a huge vacuum for the thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who are there already and, of course, those who continue to arrive steadily on boats every week."

UNHCR has been working in Libya since 1991 at the invitation of the government. Most of the refugees it deals with are Palestinians and Iraqis, with others typically coming from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Liberia and Ethiopia.

The issue of the closure took on added meaning on Tuesday amid news that a sinking boat carrying more than 20 people, mostly Eritreans, had been intercepted by Libyan vessels inside Malta's search-and-rescue zone. Fleming referred to the incident at the press conference, expressing concern at delays in the rescue on the part of Italian and Maltese maritime authorities, who were alerted to distress calls from the boat some 24 hours earlier.

UNHCR has had 26 staff in Libya, all but three of them Libyan nationals. Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no national asylum system in place. In the absence of a national asylum system, UNHCR has carried out registration and refugee status determination, visiting detention facilities and providing medical and humanitarian assistance to detainees.

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Iraq Crisis: Finding a Place to Stay

Tens of thousands of people have fled to Erbil and Duhok governorates in Iraq's Kurdistan region over the past week, sheltering in schools, mosques, churches and temporary camps following a surge of violence in parts of central and northern Iraq. UNHCR and its partners have been working to meet the urgent shelter needs. The refugee agency has delivered close to 1,000 tents to a transit camp being built by the authorities and NGOs at Garmawa, near Duhok.

Many of the people arriving from Mosul at checkpoints between Ninewa and governorate and Iraq's Kurdistan region have limited resources and cannot afford to pay for shelter. Some people stay with family, while others are staying in hotels and using up their meagre funds.

In the village of Alqosh, some 150 people from 20 families, with little more than the clothes on their back, have been living in several overcrowded classrooms in a primary school for the past week. One member of the group said they had lived in a rented apartment in Mosul and led a normal family life. But in Alqosh, they feared for the welfare and education of their children and the presence of snakes and scorpions.

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UN agencies, humanitarian groups, and government officials are coordinating efforts to do what they can to aid those in need. UN agencies are making an emergency request for additional support. UNHCR is hoping to provide emergency kits as well as thousands of tents. UNHCR and its partners will also be working to protect and help the displaced.

The exodus in the north comes on top of massive displacement this year in the western Iraqi governorate of Anbar, where fighting since January has forced some half-a-million people to flee the province or seek shelter in safer areas.

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