EU Countries Must Press Libya to Protect Migrants, Asylum Seekers, Refugees
September 13, 2006
The European Union is working with Libya to block these people from reaching Europe rather than helping them to get the protection they need.
Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee Policy Program

The Libyan government subjects migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to serious human rights abuses, including beatings, arbitrary arrests and forced return, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The European Union is currently negotiating joint naval patrols with Libya to block migration. But EU members, including the frontline country of Italy, have failed to insist that Libya protect the rights of the hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the country.

The 135-page report, “Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees,” documents how Libyan authorities have arbitrarily arrested undocumented foreigners, mistreated them in detention, and forcibly returned them to countries where they could face persecution or torture, such as Eritrea and Somalia. From 2003 to 2005, the government repatriated roughly 145,000 foreigners, according to official Libyan figures.

“Libya is not a safe country for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees,” said Bill Frelick, director of refugee policy for Human Rights Watch. “The European Union is working with Libya to block these people from reaching Europe rather than helping them to get the protection they need.”

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of people have come to Libya, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, either to stay in the country or to travel through it to Europe. Many of the foreigners came for economic reasons, but some fled their home countries due to persecution or war. Once welcomed as cheap labor, sub-Saharan Africans in Libya now face tightened immigration controls, detention and deportation.

A persistent problem is physical abuse at the time of arrest, Human Rights Watch found. Foreigners who had spent time in Libya also reported abuse in detention, including beatings, overcrowding, substandard conditions, lack of access to a lawyer, and limited information about pending deportations.

In three cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that physical abuse by security forces led to a detained foreigner’s death. Three interviewees also said security officials threatened women detainees with sexual violence. While detention conditions have improved in recent years, the evidence suggests that many of these abuses persist.

Some interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they saw or experienced police corruption during arrest or in detention. After a bribe, security officials let detainees go or allowed them to escape.

The Libyan government maintains that the arrests of undocumented foreigners are necessary for public order, and that the security forces carry them out in accordance with the law. Some border guards and police officers have used excessive force, officials told Human Rights Watch, but those isolated incidents were punished by the state.

According to government statistics, roughly 600,000 foreigners live and work legally in Libya, a country of about 5.3 million people. But between 1 and 1.2 million foreigners are in Libya without proper documentation, placing a strain on resources and infrastructure.

An overarching problem is Libya’s refusal to introduce an asylum law or procedure. Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the government makes no attempt to identify refugees or others in need of international protection. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a Tripoli office but no formal working arrangement with the government.

Some Libyan officials told Human Rights Watch that the country does not offer asylum because none of the foreigners in the country need protection. Others were more candid, and told Human Rights Watch that they fear offering asylum when the government is trying to reduce the number of foreigners. If Libya provided the opportunity for asylum, foreigners “would come like locusts,” one top official bluntly said.

“The Libyan government says it does not deport refugees,” Frelick said. “But without an asylum law or procedure, how can a person who fears persecution submit a claim? Who would review that claim and on what basis?”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 56 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, both in Libya and Italy for the report. Of these people, 17 had received refugee status at the time of the interview, either from UNHCR or the Italian government. Thirteen others were waiting for the Italian response to their claims.

The report also documents the treatment of foreigners in the Libyan criminal justice system. Foreigners in Libya reported police violence and violations of due process, including torture and unfair trials. Sub-Saharan Africans in particular face hostility from a xenophobic host population, expressed in blanket accusations of criminality, verbal and physical attacks, harassment and extortion. Top Libyan officials blame foreigners for rising crime and health concerns such as HIV/AIDS.

A large section of the report examines the migration and asylum policies of the European Union, which is cooperating closely with Libya on migration control, but not taking adequate regard for the rights of migrants or the need to protect refugees and others at risk of abuse on return to their home countries.

Italy, the country most affected by migration from Libya, egregiously flouted international law under the recent government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Human Rights Watch said. In 2004 and 2005, the government expelled more than 2,800 migrants – and quite possibly refugees and others in need of international protection –back to Libya, where the Libyan government sent them to their countries of origin. At times, the authorities collectively expelled large groups without a proper screening of possible refugee claims.

The Italian government denied Human Rights Watch access to the main detention center for people coming from Libya on Lampedusa island, but eyewitnesses reported unhygienic conditions, overcrowding and physical abuse by guards.

In a positive development, the current government of Romano Prodi has said it will not expel individuals to countries that have not signed the Refugee Convention, including Libya. International organizations have been allowed regular access to the Lampedusa facility since this year, and the current government formed a commission to investigate conditions at immigration detention centers around the country.

“The Prodi government took a welcome step by halting collective expulsions and recognizing that Libya is not safe for return,” Frelick said. “Now it should ensure that everyone who arrives in Italy or is intercepted at sea gets a proper chance to submit an asylum claim.”

To read the Human Rights Watch report, “Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees,” please see: