- The UN's refugee agency UNHCR today slammed authorities in Libya for their deportation of potential refugees from Eritrea on 27 August, which caused the desperate Eritreans to hijack the aircraft they were put on. The "ongoing forcible return of potential refugees from Libya" is concerning the UN agency as Libya increasingly is turning a stop-over for Sahara-crossing refugees heading for Europe.
Until today, UNCHR spokesman Ron Redmond has been unwilling to comment in depth on last month's drama, where Eritrean refugees hijacked the aircraft that was forcible returning them to the Red Sea dictatorship. Most of the Eritreans, managing to force the plane in Khartoum, Sudan, have since been granted refugee status by Sudanese authorities.
Mr Redmond today however told the press in Geneva that his agency indeed was "concerned over continued forcible return of potential refugees from Libya" and quite openly defended the act of the desperate Eritreans. The hijacking last month had revealed "the seriousness of the situation, and the vulnerability of refugees and asylum seekers in Libya," Mr Redmond said.
UNHCR had conducted interviews with 60 of the Eritrean passengers after their arrival in Khartoum on 27 August. The group said that they had been detained without charges for a prolonged period of time in the Libyan town of Al Khofra, and had "endured repeated physical abuse," Mr Redmond said. The Eritrean refugees also had said that, despite their request to see UNHCR, they had not been given access to any asylum procedure.
- Additionally, the group was never informed of the decision to deport them to Eritrea, were forced to board a special charter flight, and only found out after their plane took off that the destination was their country of origin, the UNHCR spokesman said. Sixty of the seventy-five passengers have since been granted refugee status in Sudan.
According to an analysis made by the UN agency, last month's deportation of potential refugees from Eritrea "constitutes a severe violation of the OAU Convention and clearly goes against the norms of international protection and the principle of non-refoulement." Libya had signed and ratified this 1969 convention of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Mr Redmond emphasised.
The UNHCR spokesman urged Libyan authorities to "ensure minimum standards of treatment for persons who might be in need of international protection." The agency however said it was aware of "the challenges" faced by the Libyan authorities in dealing with mixed flows of irregular immigrants and asylum seekers, many of those crossing the Sahara with a hope of reaching improved economic conditions in Europe - just across the Mediterranean Sea.
Libya, after improving its ties with the Western world, increasingly has become the last African point on this journey for potential African emigrants. The North African country also has high economic standards and lucrative job opportunities that attract immigrants by its own.
Libyan authorities are currently negotiating with the European Union (EU) and the government of nearby Italy regarding steps to control illegal immigration to Europe. European politicians are reported to be willing to pay Tripoli large sums to assure that potential immigrants stay in Libya or are sent back to their country of origin. Experiences from European countries show that this often includes sending back persons in need of international protection.
In particular the plight of refugees from Eritrea has been focused upon. Large-scale forcible returns of Eritreans have been reported both from Malta and Libya, while many European nations often reject individual Eritrean asylum seekers at the borders. Upon return in Eritrea, many reportedly have been imprisoned and tortured as their fleeing had exposed them as belonging to the opposition. No opposition is tolerated by the Asmara regime.
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