Since the start of MSF’s migration projects in Libya in 2016, we have repeatedly faced the same challenges: the impossibility of protecting migrants inside Libya, of ensuring continuity of care for serious physical and mental conditions, and of rehabilitating victims of torture. Whether inside or outside detention centers, MSF medical teams encounter migrants who are victims of and at immediate risk of trafficking, torture, sexual abuse, extortion and violence more generally. With no safe options inside Libya, this portion of the overall migrant and refugee population can only achieve safety and security by leaving Libya. This report aims to provide an overview of existing legal pathways out of Libya and MSF’s experience at referring cases via those mechanisms. It attempts to address the main challenges encountered, mostly resulting from third countries’ unwillingness and UN agencies’ inability to fully abide with their protection mandates and obligations. As a result, MSF is proposing to develop alternative pathways for particularly vulnerable migrants.
There are few possibilities for legal and physical protection of migrants in Libya, despite the presence of at least 600,000 migrants inside the country and an established history of migrant workers arriving in search of labour opportunities. Most enter Libya irregularly and are at risk of detention under Libyan law, in addition to the threats of exploitation, trafficking and violence at the hands of employers, traffickers and militias. While this legal regime is a legacy of the Gaddafi era, the other notable driver of migrant precarity is the continuing instability and frequent armed conflict which continues to mark post-Gaddafi Libya. Various militia groups—some operating as de facto law enforcement—are directly involved in the detention business, in addition to running or being linked to human smuggling or trafficking networks. Whether inside or outside ‘official’ detention centers, migrants are subjected to a well-documented cycle of violence and abuse, part of a deliberate system to extort payments for release and eventually allowing them to travel further, and always facing the risk of re-trafficking.
The lack of both protection and stability partly explains the industrial-scale trafficking. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers entering Libya via irregular land routes are commonly held by traffickers and tortured for ransom, for periods lasting months and often exceeding a year. To be a migrant in Libya is to risk being arrested, with no recourse to a legal system, and then detained in an ‘official’ detention center or sold on to a trafficking network, and subjected to potentially extreme violence. Providing meaningful protection in such a context, for all intents and purposes, becomes impossible.
The safe and legal options for migrants who wish to leave Libya, however, are limited. Many will make the return journey overland—especially those seasonal migrant workers from neighbouring countries—running similar risks to those they took to come to Libya in the first place. Others will attempt to cross the Mediterranean once they can pay the fare, with increasingly high rates of interception by the Libyan coastguard, supported by the European Union, and high rates of drownings. The International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) program provides the possibility of repatriation to countries of origin, although the concept of ‘voluntary’ returns, particularly when it is the only way out of arbitrary detention, is fraught. A limited number of those who qualify as ‘persons of concern’ (PoCs) from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR)’s perspective are resettled in third countries each year. If the ultimate limitation on resettlements is the lack of places in third countries, UNHCR’s inability to enforce its protection mandate—notably a proper selection of those in need of urgent international protection and resettlement based on clear and agreed criteria—deserves particular attention. The incompatibility of the usual resettlement mechanisms with the extreme circumstances in Libya demand adapted evacuation processes, which can minimise the loss of lives in Libya and at sea.
MSF regularly encounters migrants that cannot safely reside in Libya, and whose sole route to safety and security is to depart the country. While MSF will continue to refer cases to either UNHCR or IOM, MSF is also seeking to identify alternative pathways for humanitarian evacuation for particularly vulnerable migrants. These models can include an NGO role in identifying survivors of trafficking and torture in need of evacuation from Libya, in addition to NGOs and other civil society actors facilitating and funding reception in various safe countries.