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Destination Europe: Misery and Misunderstandings, part 1

From the hopeful refugee to the frustrated detainee, meet the real people stuck in Libya

Tom Westcott/IRIN

As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked

In May, IRIN’s Tom Westcott gained rare access to detention centres inside Libya and spent weeks interviewing dozens of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. Westcott found time-consuming registration and evaluation procedures and misunderstandings about who is eligible for various programmes left anger and disenchantment in migrant communities, where news travels fast and often inaccurately. This two-part feature profiles the characters involved and tells of their frustrations, fears, and dreams.

   UN programmes: The facts and the figures

With estimations of the number of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya reaching as high as a million, and many of these economic migrants, the UN and EU programmes only aim to help the most vulnerable refugees first.

Since September 2017, the UN’s refugee agency has “reached solutions” for 2,085 refugees and asylum seekers, with 1,287 being sent to Niger, 312 to Italy, and 10 to Romania, with 476 others having submitted resettlement submissions to third countries, according to UNHCR’s head of external relations in Libya, Paula Barrachina Esteban.

Only one percent of those registered by the UN as refugees or asylum seekers have so far been resettled. Looking at the numbers needing resettlement compared to the the current rate of resettlement, it appears the UN has an unmanageable task on its hands. Excluding around 5,000 people currently held in detention who can’t yet be processed under UN regulations, UNHCR has registered 52,739 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, more than 7,000 of whom were registered in the first four months of this year.

UNHCR’s 2018 target is to evacuate 5,000 people from Libya but, even for this year, the project is underfunded. “We need funds to be able to finish this year and we also need more countries to be generous and offer resettlement spaces,” said Esteban.

In Niger, for instance, the speed at which resettlement places could be found was slower than the evacuation process from Libya – the programme was suspended for two months this year. By early May, only 104 out of 1,020 refugees evacuated from Libya to Niger had been resettled in European countries, says UNHCR Niger external relations officer Louise Donovan, though she adds: “The fluidity and rapidity of the process has greatly improved.”

But while the international community and Western organisations continue to ignore the situation in Libya’s desert south, where borders stand wide open and border points remain mostly controlled by volunteer local militias, the effectiveness of IOM repatriation and UNHCR resettlement schemes is questionable.

The total number of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers repatriated or transferred from Libya so far this year – 9,765 – is less than half the number of either new or returning migrants crossing into Libya over the same time-frame. The numbers entering via the Niger-Libya desert route alone is averaging 4,800 migrants per month, according to two smugglers working this route – who estimated 24,000 had entered this way so far this year. No figures are available for other routes into Libya.

Many migrants, misunderstanding eligibility, procedures, and the general limitations of the programme, believe they will be sent en masse, any day, to Niger and, from there, to Europe. As word spread about the UNHCR resettlement programme, some migrants in Libya have starting travelling to Niger, a poverty-stricken country that cannot offer enough opportunities for its own citizens let alone migrant workers, mistakenly believing they could be “fast-tracked” to Europe via the UNHCR scheme.

“Evacuations are a life-saving mechanism so we evacuate the most vulnerable cases, mainly from detention centres but also some from the urban caseload of 52,000 who are in a vulnerable situation,” says Esteban, adding that protection needs, even amongst the urban caseload, remain high, including those at risk of detention and with medical issues.


The hopeful refugee

“My hope is to get out of here as soon as possible” – Abdul-Latif has been waiting years just to get his asylum case started but might have to wait even longer for it to be decided upon.

Sitting in a community day centre in Tripoli run by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, 20-year-old Abdul-Latif from Sudan’s Darfur region expresses relief that, after two tough years in Libya, he has finally found the help and support to enable him to at least register with the UN and start the official process of seeking asylum.

When humanitarian support started to dry up in the camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Chad where his family had been living since 2003, Abdul-Latif and two friends decided to travel to Libya, hoping to reach Europe.

“I thought Libya would be like a paradise, but I found it was full of problems and unemployment,” he says. Despite being imprisoned by criminal gangs, under whom he was forced into a daily life of hard labour because his family couldn’t raise funds to pay a ransom, he eventually, after being released, made enough money to make it onto a boat, which ran out of fuel and drifted for days before being rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard. One of his friends drowned at sea and the other died from drinking bad water during incarceration by the gangs, leaving Abdul-Latif alone and traumatised.

Offering basic medical care, skills lessons, and support for registering as an asylum seeker or refugee, for individuals like Abdul-Latif, the UNHCR Tripoli centre provides much-needed support, and he praises it for helping him learn how to read and write.

Pending consideration of his case, he lives in shared lodgings elsewhere off a small allowance provided by the UN and is volunteering with UNHCR as a “caregiver”, helping others in a similar or more unfortunate situation. “I’m not looking for work in Libya anymore and, to be honest, I’m scared even coming here every day,” he says, mostly fearing arrest and detention by authorities or attacks by criminal gangs.

Under the UNHCR’s programme for refugees and asylum seekers, some vulnerable registered cases are steadily being relocated to Niger, where diplomatic staff from potential resettlement countries can operate, as most Western countries have not reopened embassies in Tripoli. Other registered cases are submitting applications for resettlement directly from Libya.

“My hope is to get out of here as soon as possible to any place other than Sudan,” Abdul-Latif says. But the resettlement process is a lengthy one, and not all are eligible.

UNHCR Senior Protection Associate Jazia Fellah explains that the resettlement programme via Niger gives priority to single mothers, women, and those with urgent medical needs. For more ordinary cases, she says, resettlement “should not take more than two years”, a time-frame resulting from the many different processes and rounds of interviews involved.

The frustrated detainee

“Please ask the UN what will happen to us. They take photos of us and write down our names but then nothing happens” – Managing the expectations of asylum seekers like Mohamed is a widespread problem

At the Tajoura Detention Centre on the outskirts of Tripoli, 20-year-old Somalian Mohamed is fed up. “Some of us, especially Somalis, have been in here for 10 months,” he says.

While praising the “kindness” of detention centre staff (some of whom are within earshot), he adds: “Our problem now is only with the UN.”

First registered by UN staff a month earlier, he complains that priority is unfairly being given to other nationalities. “Under the UN, all nations should be equal, but that is not what we are seeing here,” he says. “There are 14-year-olds and some injured people imprisoned here,” he adds, pushing forward a 15-year-old Somalian boy. “We can’t go home because our country’s at war and every day there are bombs in Mogadishu but the UN don’t want to help us.”

UNHCR does basic registrations in detention centres to screen for who is in urgent need of life-saving evacuation, but has an ongoing challenge against false expectations.

“We are very careful to say you’re not being being registered to be evacuated because that may create tensions and false expectations. Inevitably there are hopes, especially amongst long-term detainees who see other people leaving,” says UNHCR’s head of external relations in Libya, Paula Barrachina Esteban. “But we do a lot of counselling. Our teams are in the centres every day, and we try to explain that there’s a different solution for each person.”

The dissatisfied asylum seeker

“I’ve received nothing apart from a registration document” – many asylum seekers, like Anwar, are beginning to understand the limitations of the resettlement programme

Syrian teacher and single father of three, Anwar, 58, came to Tripoli in January from the eastern Libyan port of Tobruk, where he had been living for five years, specifically to register with UNHCR, but he does not appear to have had the basic processes explained to him.

None of his children have attended school since fleeing their bombed-out home in Damascus five years ago. He is eagerly awaiting news of what he anticipates is imminent asylum, and talks excitedly about his family’s future in Germany, Britain, or Canada. Anwar does not appear to know that evacuations are only the most vulnerable cases, that most of the evacuations are from detention centres, that places in Niger are extremely limited, or that resettlement processes can take two years – despite this information being available to IRIN.

He has, however, realised the limitations of what UNHCR in Libya is able to offer registered asylum seekers. “Staff in the UNHCR office in Tripoli are very young and inefficient and have no power at all, because everything’s actually being done from Tunisia,” he says. “I’ve received nothing apart from a registration document. I thought I’d be entitled to a little financial support but, the last time I went to ask, the young lady working there rudely snapped at me that I wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t getting anything.”

Disheartened, Anwar is trying to find work in Tripoli, while waiting for resettlement that, according to UNHCR processes explained to IRIN, seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Even some vulnerable asylum seekers are growing frustrated with the delays in the resettlement programme and still trying to reach Europe via the dangerous boat journey, such as a Syrian family of six on board a migrant vessel apprehended by the Libyan Coastguard in May.

The illegal economic migrant detainee

“Please don’t forget about us” – migrants seeking better lives are often last in line for assistance

For economic migrants such as this Nepalese group of Suraj Bek, 27, and his two friends Nagenda, 38, and Min, 42, incarcerated in the Tajoura Detention Centre, their position and futures look even more uncertain.

“We’ve been registered and they want to deport us, but there’s no Nepalese embassy here so they can’t,” Suraj explains. “But we don’t want to go back because there are many problems in Nepal and we are very poor people who spent a lot of money getting here. We want to go to Europe.”

After selling all their possessions to pay for an expensive series of flights, the three Nepalese men entered Libya legally as workers two years ago. However, job opportunities proved unexpectedly scant and, unable to find regular employment, their papers expired and they were unable to renew them. Four months ago, they were detained as illegal migrants.

Unwilling to be repatriated and not entitled to refugee or asylum seeker status, the three men, along with a Hindu married couple from Bangladesh, feel particularly neglected among the several hundred African fellow detainees in the Tajoura Detention Centre.

“Me and my husband came to Libya to work but, finding the situation unstable, we decided to go to Europe but we were arrested in the sea. This institution is most uncomfortable and, although I have been here five months, I am still not registered,” says 26-year-old Mitu, a diminutive Bangladeshi, in a room shared by 80 women. Herself and her husband are among only 18 detainees at the centre, which houses over 700 people, yet to be registered by an international aid organisation, she says in worried tones.

“I have watched everyone else get registered with the UN, but still not me and my husband Vjul. Please help us. Please don’t forget about us,” she says. “They make it very difficult for us, because we’re Bangladeshis and Hindus. We understand that, if we pay, we can be released. But we have no money. I‘m concerned everyone else will leave and we’ll still be left here.”

It has long been possible for illegal migrants to pay their way out of detention in Libya (or be bought out by friends, family, or employers), unless they have tested positive for hepatitis or HIV during routine screenings undertaken at all facilities. It is not clear how exactly this informal buy-out system, which is widely-denied by Libyan officials speaking to the media, works.

Off the record, some detention centre staff confirmed the practice to IRIN and also said, if previous or prospective Libyan employers came looking for workers, they were happy to release willing migrants into employment. Centres have long been overcrowded and underfunded and, before organisations such as UNHCR and the UN’s migration body, IOM, started working regularly in the centres last year, it was also not uncommon for detention centres to arbitrarily release large groups of migrants, when food and mattresses ran short, or merely to make way for new arrivals.

Grasping the hand of Eritrean Emi, 29, who has become her best friend in the detention centre, Mitu said softly: “My friend Emi has been told she’s going to Niger and I think I would like to go to Niger too.”

(TOP PHOTO: Nigerian Tayro, left, and her husband Towolawi (not shown) have rejected IOM's offer of voluntary humanitarian repatriation, despite being held for more than six months with their two children. CREDIT: Tom Westcott/IRIN)


Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked

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