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RIGHTS-LIBYA: Migrants Find Vicious Circle of Deportation

Srabani Roy

NEW YORK, Sep 12 2006 (IPS) - The government of Libya routinely subjects migrants, asylum seekers and refugees – primarily from sub-Saharan Africa – to serious human rights abuses, including beatings, arbitrary arrests, forced returns and in some cases, torture, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released Tuesday.

The 135-page report, “Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees,” is the third in a series of HRW’s reports on Libya’s human, civil and political rights and conditions. HRW’s research, conducted between April and May 2005, was based primarily on interviews with 56 migrants, as well as government and U.N. officials, in both Libya and Italy.

The group found that between 2003 and 2005, the Libyan government arbitrarily arrested undocumented foreigners, mistreated them while they were in detention, and forcibly returned them to their home countries, where they faced the possibility of persecution or torture. During this period, according to the Libyan government’s official figures cited in the report, about 145,000 foreigners were repatriated.

“We found a big, big problem,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of HRW in New York, told IPS. “Enough of the people we spoke with told us of this.”

The report also dedicated a large section to the European Union’s and Italy’s response to undocumented foreigners entering their borders from Libya. HRW found that in their efforts to stop the influx of undocumented refugees and immigrants, both the EU and Italy regularly deported these migrants back to Libya, which in some cases has in turn returned them to their home countries where they are at risk of abuse or persecution.

“The European Union is working with Libya to block these people from reaching Europe rather than helping them to get the protection they need,” said Bill Frelick, director of refugee policy for HRW.

The problem has been particularly acute in Italy, which sees the largest influx of migrants from Libya. Human Rights Watch found that in 2004 and 2005, Italy expelled almost 3,000 foreigners back to Libya.

According to the report, the “Italian government implements a mandatory detention policy for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, and has engaged in collective expulsions back to Libya, in violation of Italy’s human rights and asylum obligations.”

The primary problem, however, is that Libya currently does not have an asylum law and is not a signatory of the international Refugee Convention of 1951. The report says that over the past decade hundreds of thousands of people have come to Libya from sub-Saharan Africa.

According to government statistics, in 2005, there were up to 1.2 million undocumented foreigners in Libya. Annually, the government estimates that between 75,000 and 100,000 legal and illegal foreigners enter the county.

Many of the foreigners left their home countries for economic reasons, but as sub-Saharan Africa becomes more engulfed in conflict, more and more people leave fleeing persecution or war.

“Libya must do better,” said Whitson. “The problem will get worse. Everyone expects that the influx from sub-Saharan Africa to grow.”

Once they reach Libya, migrants face tighter immigration controls, detention and deportation, according to HRW. The migrants interviewed by HRW stated a persistent problem of physical abuse at the time of arrest. Foreigners also reported abuses by security forces and poor conditions in detention centres.

In three cases, witnesses told HRW that physical abuse, such as beatings, led to a foreigner’s death. Three interviewees also told HRW that security officers threatened women detainees with sexual violence. Interviewees said that as undocumented foreigners in Libya, they are not given access to lawyers and only limited information about any possible deportation. Many foreigners are not aware of their rights or processes by which to seek asylum.

“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?”

The report cited cases of police violence and violations of due process, including torture and unfair trials. Many of the people interviewed by HRW were not even aware of the presence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Tripoli; this office, however, does not have any formal working relationship with the Libyan government, according to the report.

Most foreigners entering Libya from the southeast, from Chad or Sudan, if caught, are held at the Kufra detention centre. According to HRW, the detainees they interviewed there consistently recounted incidents of abuse by the guards and the poor conditions at the centre. When HRW spoke to several refugees, who subsequently received asylum in Italy, they recounted how “guards regularly beat the detainees,” the report stated. In one case, the guards “beat him [a refugee from Eritrea] repeatedly with electric cords and a whip,” according to the accounts given to HRW.

The Libyan government reportedly said that the arrests of undocumented foreigners are necessary to keep law and order. Libyan officials also told HRW that Libya does not offer asylum because “none of the foreigners in the country need protection.” Other officials said that if Libya did offer asylum, then foreigners would “come like locusts.”

Although HRW was not given access to one of the main detention centres, on Lampedusa Island in Italy, eyewitness accounts described similar unhygienic conditions and abuse by guards there.

Italy is required to abide by both international and European human rights laws and requirements. According to HRW, Italy is required to ensure “certain safeguards” if it is to expel someone from the country. These include access to UNHCR, legal counsel, competent interpreters and a judge who will confirm the order. However, the report stated that many of those expelled from Lampedusa did not have access to these rights.

This year, the Italian government started allowing international organisations access to the Lampedusa centre. Under the new government of Romano Prodi, Italy has also agreed to no longer engage in mass expulsions of people to countries that have not signed the Refugee Convention, including Libya.

“We are sure they won’t deport them,” Whitson said, clearly enthusiastic about this “positive move” by the Italian government.

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