For Refugees Detained in Libya, Waiting is Not an Option

Niger has halted refugee evacuations from Libya after E.U. resettlement promises were not kept. Izza Leghtas from Refugees International calls for urgent action with lives at stake.

Written by Izza Leghtas Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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West African migrants and refugees having failed to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, wait at the transit centre of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Niamey, Niger to be repatriated to their countries of origin. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

When we met in Niger last month, Helen* described the horrific year she had spent in Libya. She talked of the brutality of human smugglers, of being detained with hundreds of others in deplorable conditions without enough food.

The 20-year-old Eritrean is one of roughly 1,000 refugees from East Africa who have been evacuated by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from Libya’s detention centers to its southern neighbor, Niger. That program is now under threat.

While Helen has made it to the safety of Niger, she is deeply concerned about the people she left behind. She told me she has received desperate phone calls from them wondering when they might be evacuated. “They say, It’s like we are alive, but we are dead,” she said.

Niger generously agreed to host these refugees temporarily while European countries process their asylum cases far from the violence and chaos of Libya and proceed to their resettlement. In theory it should mean a few weeks in Niger until they are safely transferred to countries such as France, Germany or Sweden, which would open additional spaces for other refugees trapped in Libya.

But the resettlement process has been much slower than anticipated, leaving Helen and hundreds of others in limbo and hundreds or even thousands more still in detention in Libya. Several European governments have pledged to resettle 2,483 refugees from Niger, but since the program started last November, only 25 refugees have actually been resettled – all to France.

As a result, UNHCR announced last week that Niger authorities have requested that the agency halt evacuations until more refugees depart from the capital, Niamey. For refugees in Libya, this means their lifeline to safety has been suspended.

Many of the refugees I met in Niger found themselves in detention after attempting the sea journey to Europe. Once intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, they were returned to Libya and placed in detention centers run by Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The E.U. has prioritized capacity building for the Libyan coast guard in order to increase the rate of interceptions. But it is an established fact that, after being intercepted, the next stop for these refugees as well as migrants is detention without any legal process and in centers where human rights abuses are rife.

David*, a 26-year-old refugee from South Sudan, told me he spent 17 hours at sea before he and more than 100 others were picked up by the Libyan coast guard and taken to a detention center in Tripoli. David said that he and other sub-Saharan Africa refugees and migrants were given worse treatment than others because of their skin color. He said that once, when he was unwell, he waited in line to be taken to a clinic. He recalled that, even though he had arrived earlier, the guard in charge took three men from Morocco first. “[When] I said I came here before them, [the guard said], ‘You’re black, you’re a slave.’”

To be clear, evacuating refugees from Libya and resettling them from Niger is a humanitarian necessity. It does not absolve European governments of their responsibilities to push for an end to Libya’s criminalization of irregular migration and detention of refugees and undocumented migrants. European governments work very hard at great expense to stop people from crossing the Mediterranean Sea. This includes support for a system that picks up refugees and migrants at sea and deposits them to captivity and abuse.

Until that system comes to an end, the evacuation program must go forward as quickly as possible. The alternative is leaving people in inhumane conditions where they face rape, beatings, forced labor and racism, and where those responsible are not held accountable.

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and is already host to more than 160,000 refugees from Mali and Nigeria. It should come as no surprise that its government is only willing to continue the evacuation program if wealthy nations do their part with the urgency that the situation demands. And given that this is a new process, it is bound to have complications and delays.

Nonetheless, all parties, including UNHCR, the E.U., and governments involved in resettlement must work as quickly and as cooperatively as possible to make it a success. At the end of the day, those who are paying the price are the men, women and children who have survived unimaginable abuse, and for whom each extra day spent in detention in Libya is life threatening.

*The names of the refugees cited here have been changed to protect their identity. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

The ‘Better Data’ Panacea for Refugees And Migrants: A Reality Check

Amid a rush of enthusiasm for “data-driven humanitarianism,” Jeff Crisp of Chatham House cautions that increased data collection brings serious risks to refugees and migrants’ privacy and security – and will not necessarily lead to better policies.

Written by Jeff Crisp Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Red Cross volunteers conduct biometric registration for refugees arriving in Imvepi refugee camp, Uganda in May 2017.Gael Cloarec/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“Protecting children on the move starts with better data.” Those are the words of a statement recently released by UNICEF. It goes on to say that “reliable, timely and accessible data are essential for understanding how migration and forcible displacement affect children and their families and for putting in place policies and programmes to meet their needs.”

UNICEF is not alone in reaching such conclusions about the importance of data. In 2015, the International Organization for Migration opened a Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, with the purpose of “delivering real-life benefits for migrants and governments.” In October last year, UNHCR and the World Bank announced that they were establishing a joint data centre which will “greatly improve statistics on refugees” and “enable a better informed and more sustainable response to forced displacement.”

Many governments share this enthusiasm for the collection, analysis and dissemination of data about people who are on the move. U.N. member states are currently negotiating two global compacts, one of them relating to international migrants and the other to refugees. The very first objective of the former agreement is “to utilize accurate data as a basis for evidence-based policies,” while the latter asserts that “reliable, comparable and timely data [are] critical for evidence-based measures to improve conditions for refugees.”

The high level of current interest in refugee and migration data should come as no surprise. Innovations in the field of biometrics, the widespread use of digital devices, the popularity of social media and the penetration of internet services to the most remote parts of the world have all allowed information to be collected much faster, more systematically and at far less cost than was previously the case.

The new emphasis on data is also to be welcomed in many respects. With the right information at hand, aid agencies can gain a better understanding of the scale and direction of refugee and migrant movements, the social and economic conditions they encounter in their countries of destination, the services and aid they require, as well as the skills that they bring with them. When it is properly disaggregated, data collection can also provide important insights into the specific assistance and protection needs of boys, girls, adolescents, single mothers, disabled people and older persons.

Even so, there are a number of reasons to be cautious in relation to the new enthusiasm for “data-driven humanitarianism.”

The collection of data, especially when it involves biometrics, raises important confidentiality and security issues. In December 2017, for example, a technology company hacked into the cloud-based server of a data platform used by a dozen U.N. agencies and NGOs, accessing the names, photographs, family details and map coordinates of thousands of families receiving assistance in West Africa.

Needless to say, authoritarian states that have produced large refugee and displaced populations – Myanmar, Sudan and Syria, for example – could make use of such data to identify individuals and groups whose loyalty is considered suspect, targeting them for surveillance, discrimination or punitive action. As a result, refugees and migrants might choose not to be registered for aid (as has already been the case with some exiled Syrians in the Middle East) thereby exacerbating their vulnerability.

While the collection of biometric data is often justified in terms of the need to combat fraud (and as a result has been strongly promoted by donor states) the risk of aid diversion actually becomes greater when the distribution of aid is based on insecure data platforms that are accessible to many different people, organizations and private companies. The potential for such abuse will undoubtedly increase as the aid industry embraces the notion of cash assistance, distributed by means of ATMs and mobile phones.

Although the humanitarian community has developed agreed standards in relation to functions such as nutritional assistance, shelter provision, water supply and sanitation, there are no guidelines for the way in which aid agencies collect, store and analyze data. And this problem is likely to be reinforced by the increasingly competitive nature of the aid industry. In the words of one analyst, many aid agencies are “ramping up on using technology and trying to one-up each other in a rush to be seen as innovative.”

A further issue in relation to data concerns the extent to which refugees, migrants and other vulnerable people are informed why their biometrics are being collected, the uses to which it will be put and the people who will be able to access it. This is a particularly pertinent issue when the data are collected by states that are eager to control the movement of people. In the E.U., for example, the fingerprints of every asylum seeker are taken and stored in the Eurodac database. This is used to identify people who have moved on from the first E.U. country in which they arrived and to return them there, whether they wish to be returned or not.

The notion that additional data will lead governments to formulate better policies also requires a reality check. Many states are currently trying to obstruct the movement of people, gripped by the notion that the world is experiencing an
“unprecedented migration crisis.” In fact, the data show that the proportion of the global population moving from one country to another has remained remarkably stable for the past few decades.

Similarly, while all of the evidence demonstrates that more people migrate from poor countries when economic growth occurs, industrialized states continue to act on the false assumption that pumping development aid into impoverished regions will encourage people to stay where they are.

Looking to the future, there is a real risk that data management becomes an end in itself, absorbing scarce humanitarian resources while outstripping the ability of aid agencies to analyze the information they have collected and to use it in effective ways. Aid agencies that rely heavily on data collection and the introduction of new technologies may also limit the extent to which they interact with refugees and migrants at a human level, leading them to adopt an overly technocratic and apolitical approach to their work.

Protecting people on the move starts not with better data, but with an ability to understand the key threats to their rights and to change the behavior of those responsible for putting refugee and migrant lives at risk.

This article was originally published by Chatham House and is reproduced with permission. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

The ‘Better Data’ Panacea for Refugees And Migrants: A Reality Check

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