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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Six years later his own world turned upside down. Fleeing the bloodshed in his native Syria, Doctor Hassan escaped to neighbouring Iraq in May 2012 and sought refuge in the homeland of his former patients. "I never imagined that I would one day be a refugee myself," he says. "It's like a nightmare."

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During the two days that photographer Brian Sokol followed Hassan, he rarely stood still for more than a few minutes. His day was a blur of clinical visits punctuated by quick meals and hurried hellos. When not working in the clinic, he was making house calls to refugees' tents late into the night.

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