Last week's joint summit of the African Union and European Union concluded with a plan to evacuatethird-country refugees stranded in Libya and facing abysmal conditions in camps. "This is great news," said Cecile Pouilly, the spokeswoman for the UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations. Most of all, she is pleased that the international community has finally taken interest in the plight of displaced people in Libya.
When the US broadcaster CNN aired footage of refugees sold as slaves at auctions in Libya, there was increased impetus for the EU and AU to find a way to act at their summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Reports of disastrous conditions and rights violations at the camps are nothing new. "Amnesty International has been documenting the situation of migrants and refugees in Libya for years," said Franziska Vilmar, who works on asylum law and policy at the German branch of Amnesty International. In light of the various forms of violence experienced by displaced people at the camps, she said, "it is a good thing that the public and the governments are finally paying attention to how the people in the camps are faring."
Vilmar does not believe that the plan put forth by the AU and EU can be implemented in its current form. It is still unclear how many people are trapped in the camps. Estimates range from 400,000 people to more than 1 million. Evacuations are already taking place on a small scale, however. Both the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are running the relocation measures. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has assured both organizations that they will have access to the camps. However, Vilmar said, "I think it is unrealistic because the government neither runs all the camps nor does it have influence over them." Many such facilities are in the hands of militias: "That means it is practically impossible to get everyone out of there."
The UNHCR's Pouilly confirmed that. "There are camps to which we have no access because they are in the hands of criminal groups," she said. The agency has intended to do more for those people for a while now, so Pouilly is pleased that the international community is willing to help. "We need a lot of political support," she said. "Otherwise, aid agencies like us are powerless." In a recent statement released to the press, the IOM claimed that 15,000 refugees will be repatriated by the end of the year. The European Union will fund the flights for the repatriations.
But the passengers will not necessarily be returned to the countries they came from. Many of them will be shipped to two of Libya's neighbors, Chad and Niger, where conditions are also frequently unstable. From there, they will be redistributed to EU countries. Vilmar doubts that member states that have so far refused to accept displaced people will suddenly open their doors to them: "The evacuation plan does address the issue but not in such a way that the EU faces up to its responsibility to the refugees."
In Vilmar's view, the European Union is avoiding responsibility for its own policies by cooperating with countries such as Libya that do not offer adequate protection or applications for asylum to displaced people. She accuses the European Union of having turned a blind eye to events in Libya for a long time and not having done anything to alleviate the disastrous conditions for people living in the camps. "For months now, the EU has been training and funding the Libyan coast guard, whose involvement in human trafficking is murky," Vilmar said. "The Libyan coast guard rescues people in distress and takes them back to the camps where they face the threat of torture, rape and abuse." The medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders has also criticized the leaders of EU countries for this.
By closing Europe's borders, Vilmar said, the EU is forcing displaced people to seek other routes to the bloc, with increasingly cruel consequences. "In Libya, the cooperation between the coast guard and human traffickers is a blooming business that will do even better when the European Union isolates itself," Vilmar said. "I don't think the evacuations will change that."