In Libya, helping migrants requires difficult compromises

Working with Libya's governments may reduce the scope to criticise its abuses

Around 18,000 migrants have monopolised political attention in Europe this year after making the journey from Libya to Italy. But more than 650,000 remain behind, many in dire conditions, in a country still struggling with the aftermath of its 2011 revolution.

Just under ten thousand migrants are in official detention centres; thousands more may be being held in unofficial centres run by militias and traffickers. The lack of meaningful governance in Libya creates a severe risk of exploitation for migrants. For the two UN agencies working to help them — the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — it also poses a serious dilemma.

Getting access to vulnerable migrants means working with Libyan authorities whose human rights records are highly questionable. In those circumstances, the UN’s twin functions — providing immediate humanitarian assistance and influencing the behaviour of states — can be hard to balance. Does working to improve conditions for migrants undercut the UN’s ability to criticise the institutions responsible for their plight?

At the water’s edge

The first encounter many migrants will have with IOM and UNHCR comes after their Europe-bound boats are intercepted by the Libyan coastguard. Staff of both organisations attend as they are disembarked.

Migrants were previously kept waiting on the beach, sometimes for hours, before being moved to detention. Now the two agencies provide food, water and healthcare.

But the migrants, including children, are still sent to detention centres. Neither agency attempts to prevent this, and their staff are not able to accompany migrants as they’re moved to detention.

UNHCR told Apolitical that its operations at disembarkation are “purely humanitarian”. Othman Belbeisi, IOM’s chief of mission in Libya, said that their presence at disembarkation provides relief and reduces the risk of violence. But, he said, “migrants are automatically transferred to detention, whether we are there are not.”

And activists suspect that the need to cooperate with the Libyan coastguard to provide this assistance undermines the organisations’ ability to criticise them. “We have not seen a statement of condemnation from UNHCR against the Libyan Coast Guard and their human rights abuses,” said Titus Molkenbur, former head of operations for search-and-rescue NGO Jugend Rettet.

Both agencies provide training on human rights to members of the coastguard. But they don’t monitor officials’ conduct on the water, where crew aboard NGO rescue ships regularly see abuses, according to Molkenbur. Last month a Spanish group accused the coastguard of abandoning three migrants at sea after destroying their boat.

“My question to UNHCR and IOM will always be why they’re not condemning this behaviour, and how they’re trying to ensure that human rights are being upheld on the water,” Molkenbur said.

Working in detention

An even more significant challenge relates to the more than 9,000 migrants held in detention centres. That number has swollen in recent months, leading to significant overcrowding and inhumane conditions in the centres, which international organisations are trying to mitigate without undermining their anti-detention advocacy.

“We provide support to migrants in detention,” said Belbeisi, of the IOM. “But we do not want to replace the government in providing those facilities.” IOM and UNHCR have both made public calls for the government to stop the use of detention, and around 25 smaller centres have been closed.

“It’s the conundrum that NGOs always face in these situations”

But IOM has also done construction work improving conditions in centres, which it calls “detention rehabilitation”. New showers and toilets, for example, were installed in a centre where large numbers of people were detained in a small space with toilets in the same room.

“We did not increase the space for detention,” Belbeisi said of IOM’s work in the centres. “But access to water and sanitation is one of the basic needs of human beings.”

That leaves the agency treading a fine line. “It’s the conundrum that NGOs always face in these situations,” Molkenbur said. “But I think we should treat IOM and UNHCR differently than normal civil society actors.”

The two agencies are also the only organisations with information about the situation in Libya, since very few NGOs can now operate in the country. That makes their responsibility to highlight abuses even more significant, Molkenbur suggested.

The issue is especially difficult because of the backgrounds of many people working in detention centres and the coastguard. Last month the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the head of a regional coastguard unit for involvement in human trafficking.

“The easiest answer is to say we stop working in detention,” Belbeisi said. “But what would we be achieving? We still go to detention. We make sure that we don’t support the system, but we support the migrants in need.”

Sending people home

Also fraught are programs to help migrants leave Libya. UNHCR has evacuated around 1,900 refugees and asylum seekers, almost all to Niger, since November 2017. IOM runs a voluntary return program, which gave 19,370 migrants assistance to leave Libya in 2017.

“If you don’t return them, what is the other option?”

UNHCR policy says that voluntary repatriation of asylum seekers can only occur in the “absence of any physical, psychological, or material pressure”.

But that standard is very hard to meet in a country as insecure as Libya — particularly because many returnees are coming directly from detention. “It’s quite an Orwellian term,” Molkenbur said.

Jeff Crisp, former head of policy development at UNHCR, agreed. “There’s a plausible argument that if you’re in detention in Libya, and we know the conditions are pretty horrendous, then return is the best option,” he said. “But the word voluntary — if you’re in detention, it’s not voluntary.”

Belbeisi, though, emphasised the need for “feasible and realistic solutions”. The rate of resettlement to safe countries for recognised refugees is around 1%. “We have to be realistic about what we have on the ground,” he said. “If you don’t return them, what is the other option?”

Changing the system

The difficult circumstances in Libya highlight the broader tensions in the way the two agencies function. IOM and UNHCR are crucial in delivering immediate humanitarian assistance, because of the greater degree of funding and access they can secure as UN bodies. But both are also meant to have a role in influencing the behaviour of governments and upholding international law.

“All of us in Libya started with a very strict position: this can be done, this can’t be done, and that’s it,” Belbeisi said. “We realised that with this way of thinking, we are leaving a lot of people behind.”

Molkenbur, though, said that shouldn’t jeopardise the UN’s advocacy. “They are part of the UN system,” he said. “I think they have a greater responsibility for the actions of states, and to speak out.”

Crisp said that former colleagues at UNHCR had told him he didn’t appreciate their behind-the-scenes work. “But how can we take your word for it that you’re working behind the scenes?” he said. “Making some kind of public statement would at least show some kind of tangible effort to improve the situation.”

For Molkenbur, that could even be worth an immediate cost. “If it diminishes their access, I can see how that’s tragic in the very short term,” he said. “But in the long-run, I think, if they don’t speak up and do substantial advocacy … they will end up being a facilitator of these violent practices.” — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: Flickr/Irish Defence Forces)

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