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Our View: Who Needs to Help Solve the Libyan Migration Crisis and How

Europe’s refugee crisis has been the source of much media debate from around 2014/15 and even to the present day. The destination is reached via several routes through Africa and the Middle East but one of the busiest routes is that taken through Libya.

It is also the deadliest. Deaths occur by sea, by land and in custody by officials. There are plenty of reports out in the public domain that describe the harrowing ordeal that migrants and refugees face.

The question remains who’s problem is it to solve and how, with little headway being made to address the crisis at large.

Deciphering what needs to be done takes some nuanced understanding. Why do people leave their countries? Who’s transporting them? Where are they from? There is no neat explanation although UNHCR has provided some loose categories in order to encapsulate the trend. There are four main groups of migrants:

  1. Neighbouring country nationals e.g. from Niger, Chad, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia. They are travelling to Libya for economic reasons and intend to stay in Libya, perhaps temporarily, leaving and coming back.
  2. West and Central African country nationals e.g. from Nigeria, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, Mali and Cameroon. Many report leaving for economic reasons.
  3. East African country nationals e.g. from Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. Many leave these countries due to political persecution, conflict and economic distress.
  4. Non-neighbouring Arab country nationals e.g. from Syria, Palestine and Iraq. They are often fleeing conflict and are sometimes skilled. They are more prone to travel as family units.

The most rudimentary solution here is that those fleeing home for economic reasons need better access to livelihoods. Those fleeing persecution and conflict need better access to safe refuge. The recent upsurge in returns and repatriations, facilitated by the UN and EU, are all well and good, but there has been concern that proper consideration is not being given to people’s individual situations.

It is important that migrants and refugees who are in danger in Libya are either returned home or resettled and the EU, UN and African Union for their part are working together in tripartite co-operation. However, moves shouldn’t be knee jerk or short-termist. International partners should not work solely towards ‘targets’ but rather ensure individuals are provided with the most appropriate intervention. This may be repatriatriation and for returning migrants to become beneficiaries in employment programmes in their countries of origin. It may also be to resettle migrants directly to third countries without returning them home.

It is also important that international partners act before a situation becomes political. When a recent undercover investigation by CNN for instance, revealed that black African migrants were being sold into slavery in Libya, the viral nature of the video ensnared leaders into outrage who then proposed interventions. However, the reports on the practice of slavery has been ongoing in Libya for several years, which could have employed action prior to situation critical.

The situation becomes even more complicated considering that Libya is still a country in conflict, which elicits a war economy allowing smuggling groups dependent on armed gangs, to thrive. It also makes compliant detention conditions even more difficult. EU countries like France must continue to help mediate for a peace deal and international players should help create stability through rule of law and governance programming.

However, so far many migration policies from Europe have also focused on containing migration flows no further than Libya. This has elicited bad and frankly deadly policies, including Italy’s policy of turning around boats in the Mediterranean sea without screening those on board to determine whether they need protection. Libya is not a safe country and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. It does not recognise the right to asylum and its detention conditions are far below standards of international law.

Any policies that work to keep migrants and refugees in Libya should therefore cease immediately. Civil society reports have certainly painted EU migration policy as very anti-immigrant or anti-refugee with the aim being to stop migrants coming to Europe. This is not an adequate migration policy as far as preventing irregular migration as it does not tackle root causes. Programming to target root causes does exist but more measurable indicators may be needed to establish the impact it has on irregular migration.

The main players involved in Libya are the UK, EU, Italy and France. They should:

  1. End all policies that involve sending migrants to Libya.
  2. Screen all migrants before returning them to their country of origin (and Libya) to ensure they don’t require international protection.
  3. Resettle screened migrants needing international protection immediately.
  4. Provide other safe or legal pathways for people to leave their country.
  5. Influence Libya to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and to allow UNHCR to provide open facilities.
  6. Help establish compliant conditions of Libya’s migration facilities.
  7. Continue stabilisation efforts through capacity building and diplomacy.
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