Help 200,000+ people fleeing violence in Libya

 
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Libyan flags fluttter from a mosque in Tripoli
Libyan flags fluttter from a mosque in Tripoli

When things got desperate in Libya during 2011, Aisha* thought of leaving and risking return to her native Iraq with her four children. But as other refugees from Iraq and elsewhere crossed into Tunisia, red tape and rigid officials prevented her from following.

Today, she's back in Tripoli, trying to provide for her children after a traumatic experience that began with the tragic death of her husband, Abdul, followed by the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. "The main challenge now is that we don't have a stable income," she stressed. It's a problem facing many refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya, some of whom have also started facing eviction threats and redundancy in recent months.

But though Aisha worries about the security situation and finances, she no longer thinks of Iraq. "I have nowhere else to go to. So I have to keep some positive feelings about living in Libya," the 45-year-old told visitors from UNHCR, which monitors her family as part of its protection activities.

Aisha and her children are among almost 6,700 refugees and 2,700 asylum-seekers from about 20 countries registered with UNHCR in Libya, though the true figure could be considerably higher. Most stayed in Libya during last year's crisis, with about 1,200 seeking shelter in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Iraqis form the largest group (3,100 refugees and asylum-seekers), followed by Palestinians, Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis. 

The refugee agency stopped new registrations in June 2010 on orders from the Gaddafi regime and is currently seeking a new agreement with the interim Libyan authorities. But it monitors the situation of refugees and provides assistance with international and local partners, including health care, psycho-social counselling, cash assistance, non-food items and dry food packages. UNHCR also helps find jobs for refugees and is setting up a community centre to help make refugees self-reliant with vocational and training opportunities.

Life for foreigners during Gaddafi's rule was always uncertain because of unpredictable policies on migrant workers, who are essential to the Libyan economy. Abdul, a mechanical engineer, had come to Libya from Baghdad without a visa in 1997.

"He was an economic migrant," Aisha explained in the small, clean apartment she rents. Her oldest son, Ahmed,* 21, has his own room, her daughters aged 20 and 13 share, and Aisha sleeps in the sitting room with 10-year-old Aziz,* who was born in Tripoli but has no nationality.

The family came over after Abdul found a job. But in 2001 he was made redundant when Gaddafi decided to crack down on migrant workers during the economic downturn. Abdul was able to find a new job, but he had to accept a lower salary and had problems getting residency for the family.

Meanwhile, the family applied to UNHCR for refugee status in 2006. "We approached the office seeking protection because our presence was illegal without a resident's permit," Aisha explained, while also noting that Gaddafi had expelled thousands of Palestinians in 1995 and "we were afraid that he would suddenly expel us." The family decided that return to Iraq was not an option after deadly sectarian violence erupted there in 2006.

Life in Tripoli was not easy, but Abdul was able to provide for the family. Then one day in October 2010 he never came back from work. "He was fixing an elevator in a music institute when he fell and died," a tearful Aisha recalled. "It was a shock for everyone who knew him. He was much loved."

They were still trying to get over his death when the uprising against Gaddafi's 42-year rule began the following February. "At that time, the children were in school or university. So we decided to stay in the country and face the consequences," the mother said, adding that as well as lacking a resident's permit, her Iraqi passport had expired.

"The [NATO] bombing was close," she recalled, explaining that they lived next to a major military base. "When it was hit you could see the smoke, and earth showered over the houses." All they could do was stay indoors and hope. "We even packed our luggage and slept in our clothes so we would be ready to leave immediately," Aisha said.

After the capital was captured by anti-Gaddafi forces last August, the family decided to head to Tunisia, worried about the situation in Tripoli. "We wanted to go back home," Aisha said. But border officials would not let her into Tunisia, even on humanitarian grounds, because of the expired passport.

They were stranded at the border for two days, Ahmed said, adding that Iraqi diplomats had been of little help. This reinforced his growing determination to "never ever go back to Iraq."

Now they think mainly of the present. "At the moment we have no choice but to stay in Libya," Ahmed said, adding that his resident's permit had also run out. The good thing is that because they have proof of their refugee status, the four children are exempt from school or university charges.

Moreover, their Libyan friends and neighbors have chipped in to help the family and they have received sporadic support from Abdul's old employers, while an uncle in the Czech Republic occasionally sends money. And Ahmed works in his free time for a friend who runs a shoe shop.

But Aisha suggested that they would review the options once her children had finished their education. "We don't see a prosperous future for us as Iraqis in the country," she concluded.

* Names changed for protection purposes

A heavily damaged home in the town of Sirte.
A heavily damaged home in the town of Sirte.

SIRTE, Libya -- Ali points to a housing block that looks like a slab of Swiss cheese – full of holes from artillery fire – and says he feels lucky that he can at least stay in his own damaged apartment nearby. "The flat above mine was hit by a tank shell," he told UNHCR, adding that two of his rooms had been affected and he'd need to spend 5,000 to 6,000 Libyan dinars ($4,000 to $4,800) to repair the damage.

Ali, 33, an administrator at Sirte University, is also happy to simply be alive. "A friend just died in front of me on that corner. A bomb exploded next to him," he said, recalling the assault on Sirte last September and October that forced tens of thousands of people to flee the the town of Sirte, birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi.

As of April 2012, almost 60,000, or more than 70% have returned since the Libyan leader's killing here on October 20. "It began as a fairly gradual return and it speeded up," said aid worker Wouter Takkenberg. "In many ways, Sirte has returned to almost normal." Amid battle-scarred buildings, the streets are full of cars and people, shops and restaurants do a brisk trade, and rebuilding has begun. Electricity and water supplies are working again in most areas.

But the needs of returnees and those displaced within the coastal city are still great and this is keeping organizations like UNHCR and its partners busy. Many of the returnees found their homes destroyed or, like Ali, damaged and in need of repair.

Some 20,000 residents remain displaced, unable to return to their homes in a city that probably suffered more material damage than any other in Libya. Almost 75,000 people remain internally displaced within Libya, mostly from Misrata and Sirte as well as the town of Tawergha and the Nafousa Mountains.

Takkenberg, who spent several months in Sirte for UNHCR implementing partner, ACTED, said that in Sirte, "You have a large number of people staying with host families." He said they needed food and non-food items, "especially as the prices in Sirte have risen."

And there are also dangers, including unexploded ordnance and lingering insecurity. Aside from distributing food and aid to tens of thousands, ACTED has helped assess the condition of hundreds of buildings, while the Mines Advisory Group gives risk education to students in newly reopened schools.

"There is a huge amount of unexploded ordnance throughout the city. It's a major problem," said Takkenberg, adding that this was affecting livelihood programs and schools. UNHCR, meanwhile, regularly monitors protection needs and has provided assistance to IDPs in Sirte and elsewhere in Libya.

Ali, who spent three weeks residing in a basement before fleeing to the town of Zlitan in October to escape the shelling, said his main concerns were about security and money. He continues working, but receives irregular payments. "It's only the salaries issue, otherwise I could survive," he explained.

Many others cited finances as a major concern, especially when they first got back to Sirte and found the banking system in tatters. "There was no liquidity in the city . . . at that point there was major need among the entire population," said Takkenberg, adding that the situation was improving and "the economy is coming alive again."

Thirty-five-year-old Mohamed, a state employee like so many Libyans, was also worried about security and money. He said he had received some back pay from the interim authorities, but was unable to work as normal. "Only teachers and doctors are working full time," he said.

Mohamed hurried his wife and two children into their car during a NATO air strike in September and drove away from their apartment block in Sirte's heavily damaged Zone Two. They found shelter with relatives in a village to the east of the city.

When they returned in November, Mohamed found "there were a lot of my belongings missing," including a computer and the television. But there was a bonus. "I was really worried because I was thinking all of Sirte had been destroyed. But, thank god, I found my flat in a good condition."

Al-Sharef, 55, a member of the extended Gaddafi clan, was not so lucky. His rented home on the edge of Zone 2 was badly damaged, so he is now living with his family in a suburb of Sirte.

He, his wife and children live in one of a cluster of several wooden bungalows rented by displaced families. Despite the tribal connection, they are clearly a poor, though hospitable family. Al-Sharef earns 250 dinars a month as a watchman on an adjacent construction site, but payment is patchy and the rent is 170 dinars. He also has to pay for water that is trucked in, but he connected a line to the electricity mains.

Then there is the cost of transport for his five children who are at school  100 dinars a month in all. "We need help for everything, starting with money and housing and accommodation," Al-Sharef told UNHCR. From time to time, NGOs bring food, he said, adding that the family received free medical care.

ACTED, working with the World Food Program, the Libyan Red Crescent and local relief committees, has been distributing food to 10,800 families.

UNHCR has provided relief items to IDPs throughout the country. In 2011, the agency distributed non-food items to more than 140,000 people and assessed shelter damage in 9,941 homes. In collaboration with its partners, UNHCR coordinated assistance to IDP sites throughout the country and helps identify protection gaps. In consultation with UNICEF and LibAid, UNHCR is working on a survey on IDP access to education.

Meanwhile, none of the people questioned by UNHCR complained about retribution. "From my side, it's the same as before," Al-Sharef said, adding: "Most of my relatives came back without any problems." The whole populations of other pro-Gaddafi towns to the north have been displaced.

"I believe in the future, that it's going to be better  and I'm patient," Al-Sharef stressed. Across town, Ali said his goodbyes and headed down towards the beach. "I'm going off to fish  to make money and to eat. I do it two or three times a week, depending on my university duties," he revealed.

Mohammed helps a student show off his art.
Mohammed helps a student show off his art.

Mohammed wants to become a roving art teacher for refugees around the world. "I would like to travel with UNHCR or any other organization," he says.

For now, the 55-year-old Iraqi is content to pass on his knowledge to other refugees in a desert camp near Tunisia's main border crossing with Libya, where he worked for almost 15 years. "They have a lot of time, so I try to give them something useful to do," he explains. Their new skills could prove valuable in the future.

It's a welcome respite for teacher and students alike from the hours and days of waiting for news about resettlement. Mohammed's four adult children have been accepted by the United States, but he and his wife have heard nothing yet and are understandably concerned. Most of the people in Choucha are likely to be resettled, but not all. Moreover, the process can take months.

UNHCR considers resettlement to be the only viable option for the majority of recognized refugees who fled Libya to Tunisia. Some 1,800 refugees have been accepted for resettlement by 15 different countries and more than 700 of them have left here to start a new life.

At least twice a week, Mohammed makes his way from his rented home in nearby Ben Guerdane to Choucha, where he spends the day teaching around 50 people free of charge in the camp of more than 3,000. He specializes in painting and drawing, but also teaches basic sculpture and handicrafts.

He holds special classes on perspective for young men whose engineering studies were interrupted and for whom draftsmanship and drawing is important. This experience could be crucial in helping them to apply for college courses or to find work in their new homes.

Mohammed holds court in a community center run by UNHCR's implementing partner in the camp, the Danish Refugee Council. "One day I teach men, another day women," he says, adding that the ladies are particularly keen on making handicrafts and often hold exhibitions in the center. His students come from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, with an occasional Iraqi.

Mohammed, whose own art career has been put on hold until he can have a cataract operation, did not know what to expect when he started volunteering his skills. "I was surprised by how many turned up," he says. "They start simple and they get better . . . I teach them what they need."

The Danish Refugee Council provides Mohammed with all the materials he needs, including plain and colored paper, leather, brushes, oils, water and poster colors, string, glue, silk, knitting needles and wool. The latter are used by an Eritrean refugee, who teaches knitwear and says: "I learned in Libya."

UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council are looking at ways to help the students earn something from their enterprise and keep them motivated.

Mohammed displayed some of the work produced in this desert studio, including paintings and drawings as well as photo frames, bracelets, cloth handbags, woollen beanies, place mats, paper flowers and much more.

Coming to Choucha is clearly therapeutic for Mohammed, who learned his craft from some of his country's greatest modern artists, including Hafidh al-Duroubi and Faik Hassan, acclaimed for his paintings of horses.

"I was an art teacher for 30 years in Iraq and Libya at schools and universities, including Misrata, where I founded the department of plastic arts," says Mohammed, who was born in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. He came to Libya in 1997 to work at a teacher's institute in Tripoli.

The family became settled, with Mohammed also painting and exhibiting his own work. But in recent years he became concerned about pay and contracts. When the uprising against the Muammar Gaddafi regime began in February last year, he was lecturing at Zawiya University to the west of Tripoli.

The family debated what they should do, including the possibility of returning to Iraq. Mohammed worried about continuing insecurity in his home country and was mindful of a deadly campaign by Islamic radicals against artists, which was at its height from 2003-2007.

"I went back in 2008 and found that a lot of my friends had been killed, so I felt threatened," he said, noting that the family had been given refugee status in Libya in 2007 because of his fears about the danger to artists in Iraq.

They decided to seek safety in Tunisia, entering the country last May at the Ras Ajdir crossing. The family first stayed in a Red Crescent camp before moving to Choucha in September. "We left to Ben Guerdane in October. It was very difficult to live in the camp," he said. "If you have money you can move out. And being Iraqi helped."

It's still tough in Tunisia. They pay 150 Tunisian dinars ($100) a month for an apartment for six. "We have a hard life and a small budget," he said, while adding that locals help with food from time to time.

He sees no future in Tunisia because it is difficult to work there, while he says he will never go back to Libya "because the crisis continues. The Libya crisis will never end." That leaves resettlement as his main hope, but the wait is stressful. "I worry because I want to stay with my family. I'm still worried."

The weekly visits to Choucha help buy his spirits. And Mohammed is happy to have been given the chance, in the most unexpected of places, to resume his profession. Above all, he's grateful to his students. "I thank them, because they have given me hope again of teaching and learning art," he said.

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UNHCR staff interviews a Sudanese man in Sallum.
UNHCR staff interviews a Sudanese man in Sallum.

Andrew Mok, computer open in front of him, faced the Sudanese man across the table in a converted freight container and began the interview.

"Please do not make any false statements because that could have a negative impact on your application," the 23-year-old from Hong Kong informed the man, who was bidding to be recognized as a refugee. "Everything you tell UNHCR will be strictly confidential," he added, reassuringly.

Refugee status determination (RSD) is a vital part of UNHCR's daily protection work and the above scene is replicated every day in UNHCR operations around the world.

But there is a difference at Sallum because those being interviewed are stuck at a busy border crossing, unable or unwilling to go home or back to Libya, and not allowed to go further inside Egypt. There are around 2,000 people left from the 40,000 third country nationals who fled to Sallum to escape last year's conflict in Libya, most of whom were allowed to transit Egypt.

"All of them want to leave [for resettlement]," Yvan Sturm, head of UNHCR's Sallum team, said of the 2,000. ''The majority have no other option," added Stephen Choka, the RSD supervisor. The best solution for refugees is normally repatriation followed by local integration, but at Sallum everyone registered as a refugee has been referred for resettlement  this does not apply to those who have arrived since a cut-off date last October.

Although both the Egyptian border authorities at Sallum and UNHCR want to see the problem resolved soon, the process takes time. Mok was interviewing the Sudanese man for the third time, asking about an inconsistency that could mean the difference between recognition as a refugee and rejection. And resettlement can only be considered for recognized refugees.

Today, the work of the refugee agency's RSD team at Sallum, many of whom were seconded from the Danish Refugee Council, is almost finished and Andrew has already left. A total of 1,750 people, mostly from Sudan, have been registered as refugees, of whom 248 have to date departed for resettlement countries or for transit centres in Europe.

Sixty cases were rejected for refugee status, even after appeal, while more than 200 people who arrived in Sallum after October 23 have been told they will not be considered for resettlement. The decision to impose a cut-off date was aimed, in part, at deterring people who were neither residents of Libya nor affected by the conflict there from heading to the border. "The people who came after this date are considered as asylum-seekers, but will not be interviewed for RSD," Sturm said.

While the RSD process is almost over, it will take many more months before all of those referred for resettlement finally get to leave for their new homes. That's partly because "only six resettlement countries have taken cases from Sallum," said Heidi Boener. "We are heavily dependent on the United States," added the resettlement officer.

As Mok continued with his questions, Boener stood in a nearby building and addressed about 30 registered refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia who were due to be interviewed over a two-week period by officials from the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She took them through the kinds of questions they would face, including queries about their family history and why they cannot return to their country of origin.

Boener said more than 1,400 people had been referred to the US for resettlement and the visiting DHS staff planned to meet a first group of about 250 for a so-called first circuit interview, with plans to return about every three months to talk to a similar number each time. After interviews, and if they are conditionally approved, they will undergo security background checks and medical screening before final approval and authorization to fly to America.

"It's going to be a few months for the case to move," Boener said, referring to this first group to be interviewed. "It's not going to happen overnight. They take a long processing time," she noted, while adding: "It would be really great if other resettlement countries would consider coming here to share the responsibility."

This was echoed by a senior Egyptian port official, who said the rate of resettlement so far had been slow and he was worried that the problem would linger for years. In addition to the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have all accepted smaller numbers of people from Sallum. Switzerland has accepted a small number of people through family sponsor applications.

Meanwhile, those stuck at Sallum are clearly getting fed up. "In this camp, I just feel like I am in prison," said Tahir, a middle-aged man from Sudan's Darfur region whose wife has a niece in Arizona. "I wish to go to a safe place where I can get on with my life like other people in the world."

Habtamush, a 20-year-old Eritrean, said she wanted to go somewhere she would be safe and get an education. "I feel happy and I'm dreaming of a better future," she said before the DHS meeting. She knew that there was always the possibility of rejection and delay, but she stressed: "I am prepared to wait."

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Emmanuel Gignac, UNHCR Chief of Mission in Libya
Emmanuel Gignac, UNHCR Chief of Mission in Libya

Just over a year after the launch of the uprising that toppled late Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi last August, problems of displacement remain in the North African country while the stream of people from sub-Saharan Africa arriving in Libya on mixed migration routes to Europe is picking up again. Some are refugees and asylum-seekers from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. Emmanuel Gignac arrived in Tripoli last September to head UNHCR office, resume operations and consolidate the agency's presence in the eastern city of Benghazi. UNHCR is waiting to establish a formal agreement with the new authorities, but there are many challenges to tackle, including helping refugees, returnees, the internally displaced and people at risk of statelessness. Gignac talked to UNHCR Web Editor Leo Dobbs in Tripoli about these issues. Excerpts from the interview:

What has been the main focus of UNHCR's work in Libya?

We have been very busy with the [internally] displaced people and third country nationals stranded in the country. That kept us preoccupied until December. Regarding the refugees, we have progressively resumed our activities. We have also been very busy with the Somalis [arriving in Libya on mixed migration routes], who are not yet recognized as refugees because we haven't resumed refugee status determination. And we haven't resumed registration documentation issuance because we're waiting to get our agreement with the authorities. We would like to work directly with the new Libyan authorities [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior] and see how we can assist in finding solutions for refugees.

We are also conducting, through universities, through civil society, sensitization sessions on refugee law, on UNHCR. This is an important area.

What about the refugees?

We have presently registered in our database 9,400 refugees and asylum-seekers. [These people were registered prior to last year's uprising]. The refugees account for about 6,600, while the remaining 2,700 are asylum-seekers. The majority are still here, most of them in Tripoli. Some are in Misrata, some are in Benghazi. From an initial total of 10,600 registered people of concern, some 1,200 left Libya during the uprising and were registered at Choucha camp in Tunisia or Sallum in Egypt.

The largest group of registered refugees is the Iraqis, followed by the Palestinians. Then come Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis. I believe most of the Iraqis came during [President] Saddam Hussein's rule; we're talking about 3,100 refugees and asylum-seekers. The Palestinians are officially the second largest group, with 2,700, but reports say there could be up to 40,000.

We stopped doing new registrations in June 2010. A crisis arose when the government at the time asked UNHCR to leave the country. A high-level mission came from Geneva and they negotiated a new arrangement which meant we no longer registered, but just looked after the group of people we had already. We still lack an agreement with the authorities.

Read more at: http://www.unhcr.org/4f637acc6.html 

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Lauren Meling

Washington, DC United States

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