Libyan refugees

In Libya, the strategy of military intervention could spark a humanitarian crisis, says Associate Professor of Political Science Sarah Lischer. Author of “Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Crises, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid,” Lischer studies refugees, humanitarian aid, civil war, and African politics.

If violence in Libya continues, refugees could overwhelm neighboring states who are themselves going through significant political upheaval, she says.  Lischer follows worldwide developments regarding refugees and humanitarian aid, including the return of nearly two million refugees to Rwanda following the 1994 genocide there. She shares her ideas about the current situation in Libya and what the future may hold for refugees.

How does the recent Security Council vote on use of force affect the situation for refugees?

There are positive and negative scenarios for how international military intervention will affect refugees. In Kosovo, massive migration (of nearly a million Kosovo Albanian refugees) did not start until NATO began bombing. The military intervention was actually the catalyst for massive refugee flows — by the people that NATO was trying to protect. This could happen in Libya. The bombing or other military action can create threats and chaos among civilians, causing unintended consequences. If this happens, there will be negative reactions from the neighboring states, who bear the brunt of population movements. This could fracture support for international action.

On a more optimistic note, military action could create a safer space for aid agencies to enter. This could allow access to a population likely in desperate need of assistance. It would require ground troops, however, to create safe corridors for aid delivery. Overall, the strategy of military intervention is a risky one. It could spark a humanitarian crisis or encourage Qaddafi to abuse civilians even more. Air attacks are a blunt instrument and may not provide much protection to civilians in Libya. Ideally, internationally pressure can lead to a firm cease-fire, pull back of government forces and negotiations with the rebels.

Who are the people on the move in Libya?

  • Foreign workers who are trying to get back home, mostly to other North African countries. Many are fleeing toward Tunisia and Egypt, although that is not necessarily their home country. More than 8,000 are stranded at the Libyan border (on both sides). They lack the money to get home and have lost all their capital that they had saved while working in Libya. They are also at risk of attack since Libyans think they might be African mercenaries hired by Qaddafi. Over 300,000 people have already fled Libya. There are hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in Libya, so this movement could continue for quite a while.
  • Libyan refugees who are fleeing the fighting. These are civilians caught in the crossfire, for the most part. The numbers of Libyans crossing the border is increased dramatically in recent days.
  • Refugees from other African countries who were living in Libya, but now are not welcome. These people are in limbo since they cannot return to their home countries for fear of persecution.

How will countries bordering Libya with scarce resources of their own handle the influx of refugees?

The neighboring states do not want to deal with a huge refugee presence, especially considering the domestic upheaval already occurring in Tunisia and Egypt. Foreign workers hoping to transit through Tunisia and Egypt are also straining resources. Many trapped foreigners are becoming frustrated and angry at their treatment.

What is the responsibility of other states to the Libyans?

International law mandates that no state can forcibly return a refugee when they are at risk of continued persecution or oppression. This affects European nations as well, most of which desperately want to avoid hosting Libyan refugees. European states, such as Italy, can circumvent the law (the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) by making sure that the Libyans do not land on their territory. The United States followed similar strategies after the earthquake in Haiti, intercepting Haitians at sea and returning them home. One difference here is that the Libyans are clearly fleeing persecution and civil war. They should be automatically granted refugee status.

How can humanitarian aid from other parts of the world help Libyan refugees?

Right now, the aid organizations cannot get into Libya. There are virtually no international agencies on the ground, with the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross. If aid agencies can get access, either through negotiation with the Libyan government (not a very promising avenue) or through security corridors set up to protect aid delivery, then there will be a prospect of helping civilians. At present, there is little information about the humanitarian needs, although the assumption is that the situation is getting worse and more people will lack sanitation, health care and food as the crisis goes on.

Have other refugee situations in Africa had positive resolutions?

Many refugee situations in Africa have had positive resolutions over time. One example is the current returns to South Sudan now that the region has become an independent state. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese are peacefully moving back after decades in exile.

What lessons from your book, “Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid,” apply to this situation?

The main lesson is to prevent militarization of refugee populations. This includes protecting refugees from forced recruitment by armed groups and securing assistance from misuse by combatants. It is important to make sure that refugee camps remain civilian zones, as outlined in international law. There is also a need for donor states to have political engagement with the crisis so that humanitarian organizations are not left with all the responsibility. These aid workers, both international and local, operate at great personal risk, particularly if the host government (Libya) is hostile to their activities.

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