(New York) - Libyan authorities are giving Eritrean officials access to Eritrean migrants, including many asylum seekers who are being detained in Libya, violating their right to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said today. This development also suggests that the asylum seekers may be in danger of being forcibly returned to Eritrea.
"Eritreans seeking asylum because of a fear of persecution at home have a right to confidentiality while their claims are pending," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. "In inviting Eritrean officials to meet - and possibly intimidate - them in detention, Libya is committing a serious breach of their asylum rights."
The United Nations refugee agency has recommended that host governments refrain from forcibly returning even rejected asylum seekers to Eritrea because it is likely that all returned Eritreans will be subjected to detention and torture.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that over the past two weeks, Eritrean embassy officials have visited a number of migrant detention centers, including Misrata, Zawya, Garbule, Surman and Zleitan. Officials have taken pictures of the detainees, and Libyan and Eritrean officials have coerced them to fill out forms. Human Rights Watch has learned that detainees believe the eight-page forms, in Eritrea's Tigrinia language, are being completed in preparation for their deportation.
On January 3, 2010, Eritrean migrants in the Surnam detention center managed to communicate that Eritrean officials came to the center and told them to fill out forms. Some of the migrants refused to have their photographs taken because they felt this was to facilitate deportation. The migrants said that Libyan guards beat those who refused.
On January 11, detained migrants in Misrata and Garabule managed to communicate that Libyan security forces beat them when they refused to fill out the forms and threatened to withhold food. They claimed that Eritrean officials visiting them had told them that once they completed the forms, they would be returned to Eritrea.
On April 26, 2009, the Libyan justice secretary, Mostafa Abdeljalil, told Human Rights Watch that Libya would not deport Eritreans or Somalis. Libya's 1969 Constitutional Proclamation says, "The extradition of political refugees is prohibited" and Law 20 of 1991, "On Enhancing Freedom," says, "The Jamahiriya supports the oppressed and...should not abandon the refugees and their protection."
Increasing numbers of Eritreans are fleeing the indefinite national military service imposed by the Eritrean government and pervasive arbitrary detention and torture. Eritrea routinely imprisons individuals caught trying to flee the country and implements "shoot to kill" orders for anyone crossing the border without permission. If the government identifies someone who has successfully crossed into Ethiopia or Sudan, it subjects their family members to large fines and sometimes imprisonment.
Human Rights Watch released a report in September 2009, "Pushed Back, Pushed Around," which documented frequent abuses of migrants while in detention, as well as the general practice of detaining migrants for indefinite periods of time. Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its 1967 Protocol and has no asylum law or procedures. There is no formal mechanism for individuals seeking protection in Libya. The authorities make no distinction between refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. Libya has, however, ratified the African Refugee Convention.
Both the Convention against Torture and the African Refugee Convention forbid Libya from sending individuals to countries where they face a serious risk of persecution or torture. Libya is also a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which, under article 13, prohibits arbitrary expulsion and entitles foreigners to an individual decision on their removal/expulsion.
The Human Rights Committee has interpreted article 7 of the ICCPR to forbid refoulement - or return - of persons to places where they would be at risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Under customary international law, Libya is also obliged not to return any people to places where they may face persecution or their lives or freedom are at risk.
"Libya needs to adopt an asylum law to protect refugees," Frelick said. "It should sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and formally recognize The UN refugee agency."