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Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation, recently visited detention centers in Libya and expressed his concerns regarding the situation of asylum-seekers and refugees and the difficulty they face to access proper documentation. 

UNHCR staff distribute food, water and blankets to refugees who escaped from detention centres. As renewed fighting broke out in Tripoli in early-September, UNHCR’s local office provided assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers who escaped from detention centres as rockets exploded around the capital. © UNHCR/Sufyan Ararah

You were recently in Libya, where people on the move often arrive after a long, harrowing and violent journey. Could you tell us a bit more about the situation over there?

Vincent Cochetel: The situation in detention centres remains appalling. A few months ago, I thought that they could not be worse. I was wrong, now even access to food is a problem and there is an outbreak of tuberculosis in several detention centres. People are desperate, hungry, traumatised. A case of suicide was recently reported to us. In those conditions more people apply to return to their countries of origin. Is this voluntary return or is it the result of duress?


UNHCR is opposed to the detention of refugees and asylum-seekers but is present in places where refugees are located to provide them with life-saving assistance. Could you explain the challenges faced by the teams there?

V.C: Access is conditioned by staff safety considerations and several detention centres and our registration centre in Tripoli are currently out of reach. The bureaucratic requirements to get access to detention centres are significant. A prison visit is not just a visit whenever you want. All the required authorizations do not always guarantee effective access and access does not mean confidentiality. Access does not mean being able to engage with all persons detained. Restrictions apply in relation to their nationalities. UNHCR could before October 2017 obtain the release of persons of concern. This is no longer the case unless we are able to evacuate these refugees.


You saw registration activities during your mission: where exactly do we register, whom do we register and for what purpose?

V.C: We register asylum seekers in detention. Due to staff safety concerns, we have temporarily suspended registration outside detention centres. We register asylum seekers and refugees belonging to 9 nationalities with the hope to protect against unlawful disappearance and to understand their itinerary and determine options for a solution depending on their individual profile.


You recently tweeted that the authorities are opposed to us providing proper documentation. Why is that and what is done to make sure that asylum seekers are receiving protection and assistance?

V.C: In spite of having ratified the 1969 OAU Convention relating to refugees, Libyan authorities do not consider itself as a country of asylum. As a consequence the refugees we recognize do not enjoy asylum in Libya. The authorities are opposed to having us issuing in detention any form of documentation that could evidence that some people are seeking international protection. Access to assistance is unpredictable and the level of assistance is below all norms and standards. Registration does not guarantee protection, but it provides us the evidence that some individuals seek international protection in spite the fact they are detained in an arbitrary manner and for an unlimited period of time. Without this safeguards, all would be easily labelled as migrants to make them automatically returnable without due consideration for why they left their country in the first place.

What would be your recommendations to improve asylum seekers and refugees’ access to documentation?

V.C: Registration is a right for asylum seekers and refugees wherever they are. We also need to convince the Libyan authorities that the registration (with biometric in-take) of asylum seekers and refugees in general would also be useful to them for managerial purposes and is consistent with their own laws.