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In limbo – hundreds of thousands forced to flee North Africa

The figures are often staggering: in February humanitarian organisations reported that up to 14,000 people had crossed the border from Libya into Tunisia in a day. More than 1400 migrants and asylum-seekers have lost their lives in the Mediterranean since January.

According to a report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay (PDF), to the Human Rights Council in Geneva the momentous political changes taking place in countries across the region since the beginning of the year have been accompanied by significant and at times overwhelming population movements.

The picture painted in the report is bleak.  UN agencies estimate that around 846,000 people have left Libya since the fighting began in February, of which some 650,000 are migrants. Around 50,000 migrants have arrived at the borders of Europe from North Africa in the same period.  

In order to alleviate this serious situation, the High Commissioner has recommended in her report that States consider granting temporary permits on humanitarian grounds to people fleeing the unrest.

The report says at the outbreak of the fighting an estimated 2.5 million migrant workers were living in Libya, many employed as low-wage labourers in the oil, construction and agriculture sectors. Libya was also host to thousands of asylum-seekers from such countries as Eritrea, Somalia, the Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire.

The plight of these people has been of concern from the start.  The High Commissioner, in her statement to the Council’s special session on Libya in February, said that the Office was receiving reports that “Libyans are turning on refugees and migrants from other African countries, suspecting them of being mercenaries.” 

In June the Council mandated international commission of inquiry reported and described the frequent mistreatment of migrants, often on the basis of their origin and skin colour.

Addressing the Council following the release of the inquiry’s report, High Commissioner Pillay spoke of the “continuing vulnerability” of migrants caught up in the turmoil.  “They have faced unimaginable suffering while stranded between borders; they have fallen prey to traffickers and other criminal gangs; and many have been compelled to make dangerous journeys, in desperation and hope, they are often met with that can be life-threatening interdiction, detention, rejection and xenophobia,” Pillay said.

Those who managed to escape, the report says, often ended up in transit camps which “rapidly became overcrowded and volatile”.
Thousands more attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea.  Especially vulnerable, many migrants have found themselves being smuggled in unseaworthy vessels or drifting for days or even weeks without adequate food or water.  The report notes that increasingly tough controls at the external borders of Europe have increased the risks, forcing migrants and asylum-seekers into more and more dangerous modes of travel.

Such is their desperation however, that migrants continue to attempt the crossing to Europe, according to the report. Between January and August 2011, thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan and North African countries as well as South Asia have tried to escape Libya and other countries by sea, most arriving on the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

Hundreds have not survived.  The report describes a recent incident where Italian ships rescued 370 refugees from a boat drifting near Lampedusa.  The migrants had little food or water and 30 people, most of them women, had reportedly died of dehydration and exhaustion while waiting to be rescued. The boat had apparently been drifting for days ignored by other vessels in the area. 

There have been allegations throughout the year that refugee boats in distress have been ignored and left to their fate by ships in the vicinity and by the authorities. Pillay spoke of this in her address in June, “If ships are not responding to calls of assistance, it is not only human beings who are dying, but with them also our profound attachment to human rights, and to what must be our universal recognition that all human beings are equal.”

Countries have been called on urgently to put in place more reliable and effective mechanisms for rescues on the Mediterranean, and to ensure that boats carrying rescued migrants are able to disembark the migrants at the nearest safe port.

In addition to recommending that States consider issuing temporary permits on humanitarian grounds, the report makes a number of recommendations aimed at addressing the situation faced by these vulnerable migrants.  

All States, commercial shipping companies and others present in the Mediterranean should consider that every boat leaving Libya may require assistance and should act accordingly. 

International cooperation mechanisms should share the burden of hosting migrants and asylum-seekers with countries of first refuge. States should ensure that adequate procedures are in place at borders to ensure the protection needs of migrants, and to avoid unlawful or collective expulsions.

Alternatives to detention should be explored and children should not be detained at all. States should increase resettlement places for refugees from Libya and expedite the departure from border camps of refugees fleeing events in North Africa. 

20 September 2011