September 21, 2009

XI. UNHCR in Libya

The presence of a UNHCR office in Libya dates back to 1991, but in the ensuing years there have been many times that the Libyan government did not honor letters of attestation UNHCR issued on behalf of people it recognized as refugees under its mandate.[125] Although relations with UNHCR have improved in recent years, Libya has still declined to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the agency, which is standard procedure in most countries where UNHCR maintains offices. Since Libya does not officially differentiate between refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants, Libyan officials still do not recognize UNHCR-issued refugee certificates and letters of attestation.

In July 2008, UNHCR signed an agreement with a Libyan NGO, the International Organization for Peace, Care and Relief (IOPCR), the International Center for Migration Policy Development (a Vienna-based NGO), and the Italian Council for Refugees.[126]  

Since the publication of our last report on migrants and asylum seekers in Libya when UNHCR only had access to one migrant detention facility in Tripoli, the Libyan government has granted UNHCR access to seven migrant detention centers in different parts of the country.[127] However, at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, UNHCR’s caseload of recognized refugees in detention was clustered in the Misrata detention facility.[128] The long distances to cover to reach the numerous detention centers in Libya make it difficult for UNHCR’s staff to visit them regularly, including the Misrata camp, which is about 280 kilometers from the UNHCR office in Tripoli. UNHCR began conducting refugee status determinations for Eritreans detained at Misrata in 2007 when there were about 400 held there. UNHCR’s interventions, including some third country resettlement, helped to reduce the Misrata detainee population to about 200 by the end of 2008.[129]

UNHCR is able to provide assistance from its Tripoli office to 3,000 refugees, including some financial aid, vocational training, and medical assistance. Despite the lack of a formal agreement, the agency communicated regularly with the government and succeeded in freeing detainees with UNHCR letters of attestation, thereby preventing their expulsion. In July 2008, UNHCR successfully intervened to prevent the refoulement of 230 Eritreans.[130] It says that it has not documented a case of refoulement from Libya since 2007.[131]

In 2009, the UNHCR office in Tripoli consisted of 28 staff of whom 12 are authorized to conduct refugee status determinations. Without proper legal status, their powers are limited. Despite this, the agency continues to conduct refugee status determinations for the 40 to 50 asylum seekers, on average, who were approaching the office every week in 2009.[132]

Despite restrictions on its work, as of July 31, 2009, UNHCR Tripoli had registered 8,506 mandate refugees, of whom 3,635 were Palestinian long-term residents in Libya and 2,653 were Iraqis. The rest included 781 Sudanese, 597 Somalis, 451 Eritreans, 144 Liberians, and 245 others. UNHCR has seen a steady growth in asylum seekers during the past five years (676 refugee claims lodged in 2005, 1,058 in 2006, 2,779 in 2007, 4,825 in 2008, and 2,256 in the first six months of 2009). During 2008, UNHCR referred 227 refugees from Libya for resettlement. Of these, 145—mostly Eritreans—were admitted to other countries.[133]

Following Italy’s return of migrants to Libya in May 2009, UNHCR appealed to the Italian and Maltese authorities to “continue to ensure that people rescued at sea and in need of international protection receive full access to territory and asylum procedures.”[134] UNHCR stressed that “there is no assurance that persons in need of international protection would find that in Libya.”

While petitioning the Italian Government to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, UNHCR also endeavored to provide humanitarian assistance and basic protection to those returned to and detained in Libya. Between May and July 2009, UNHCR screened 632 boat returnees and found 97 to be seeking international protection.[135] UNHCR asked the Italian government to readmit those persons seeking international protection and to determine their claims in accordance with Italian law.[136]


[125] Around 2004, the Libyan government ceased to recognize the letters of attestation that UNHCR gives refugees and asylum seekers.See Stemming the Flow, pp. 23-29. 

[126]Under the agreement, the organizations will support the Libyan authorities in "designing and implementing comprehensive and protection-sensitive asylum management strategies with full respect for international and regional refugee and human rights principles." See "UNHCR signs agreement aimed at ensuring refugee protection in Libya," UNHCR, news stories, July 4, 2008, (accessed July 30, 2009).

[127] UNHCR has access to Misrata, Zleitan, Al-Zawiya, Garabulli, Surman, Towisha, and Zuwara.

[128]UNHCR email to Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2009.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Amnesty International, “Libya: Amnesty warns against deportation of Eritreans,” July 11, 2008, (accessed August 28, 2009).

[131]UNHCR email to Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2009.

[132] Ibid.

[133] Ibid, for the entire paragraph.

[134] UNHCR, “UNHCR deeply concerned over returns from Italy to Libya,” press release, May 7, 2009, (accessed July 15, 2009).

[135]UNHCR email to Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2009.

[136]UNHCR, “Follow-up from UNHCR on Italy’s push-backs,” press release, May 12, 2009, (accessed July 15, 2009). Italy’s EU Affairs Minister, Andrea Ronchi, responded to UNHCR’s criticism by saying that UNHCR “should be ashamed of itself” and should “apologize to Italy.” See “Italy in Migrant Mistreatment Row,” ANSA, July 14, 2009,  (accessed July 15, 2009).