On March 17, 2020, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced they would temporarily suspend resettlement departures for refugees due to COVID-19. The announcement echoed the Canadian government’s decision to close the country’s borders to all non-Canadian residents.
“Due to the evolving situation related to COVID-19, refugee resettlement travel has been temporarily suspended. Canada will work with partners to continue to resettle refugees from Niger and Libya once conditions allow,” the office of Marco Mendicino’s, Canada’s immigration and refugee minister, told the Toronto Observer in a statement.
Caught up in this delay are more than 200 refugees who have lived in migrant detention centres in Libya, where conditions have been described as extremely inhumane. In February of 2019, Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s then mister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, announced that Canada would be resettling 600 refugees who were, or at risk of being, sold into slavery in Libya.
So far, more than half have made it to Canada. But some are still waiting.
“As of March 9, 2020, 371 individuals have been resettled to Canada as part of the Ministerial commitment to resettle 600 refugees to Canada from Libya by Dec. 31, 2020. This includes individuals from all resettlement streams,” said a representative from the IRCC.
“Additionally, 238 government-assisted refugees have been resettled to Canada who were evacuated through the UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Mechanism to Niger and Rwanda from Libyan migrant detention centres.”
This decision to resettle refugees from Libya came after the United Nations appeal made an appeal for countries to help resettle people who were living in the horrific migrant detention centres in the North African country. Other countries that responded to the U.N.’s plea were France, Sweden, and the United States.
Mendicino has upheld Hussen’s promise to resettle both refugees directly from Libya as well as those who were evacuated from the atrocious conditions to transit centres in Niger, Rwanda, Italy and Romania.
Learn more about Canada’s role in resettlement of migrants from Libya:
Libya has been a destination country in Africa for decades and employed migrant labourers. More recently, the country has become the final stop before Europe for many migrants from countries in Africa and the Middle East. People leave their home countries for a range of reasons, including fleeing violence, persecution, poverty, or the hope of finding a better life for them and their families.
The IOM believes there are 700,000 to 1 million migrants in Libya. Due to its location on the north tip of Africa, Libya is the place that up to 90 per cent of people try to disembark from when crossing the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe.
Although Libya is a destination or stopover for many people who have come from unstable regions, the country itself is now volatile. Libya has been in a state of unrest since the death of leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. There are currently three governments vying for power, resulting in war and corruption.
Learn more about the background of the war in Libya:
“Libya is in a totally new chapter and different (than other countries that have migrant smuggling) because, after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, it’s been, unfortunately, a place where there’s no secure government, no rule of law,” said Anna Triandafyllidou, Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration, in a recent video-call interview.
Triandafyllidou has been researching migrant smuggling for most of her career and is well versed in migrant detention in Libya. Before moving to Toronto in 2019, she lived in Florence, Italy, and directed a team at the European University Institute who researched migration and diversity issues. One of Triandafyllidou’s most recent publications, with her colleague Katie Kuschminder, is Smuggling, Trafficking and Extortion: New Conceptual and Policy Challenges on the Libyan Route to Europe in the Antipode journal.
This volatility is one of the reasons migrants in Libya have found themselves in situations that have been referred to by organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) as modern-day slavery. The term ‘modern slavery’ has not been defined by law but is recognized by the ILO and other groups as a situation where someone is sold into human trafficking or forced labour and cannot say no or leave. Many migrants end up in circumstances such as human trafficking, extortion and smuggling while trying to make deals with people who say they can help them get to Europe.
“Truly (migrants) become very vulnerable after their experiences in Libya,” Triandafyllidou said.
As if the journey isn’t treacherous enough, the bulk of migrants who make it to the Mediterranean either die or get turned back at sea.
IOM has been recording the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of 2014. As of February 2020, 35,381 people have died while trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
If people don’t perish at sea, they often get intercepted and turned back to Libya, either by Libyan coastguards or the E.U. The E.U. and Libya have a forced return and containment agreement that tries to stop as many people as possible from reaching Italy and other southern- European countries.
The overflow of people being turned back to Libya has resulted in migrants being sold in slave markets by human traffickers. CNN brought this problem to light in a 2017 video.
After facing these human rights abuses, people end up in legitimate and illegitimate detention centres. The Libyan government runs the official centres, and traffickers and smugglers operate the unofficial centres. Migrants have to confront disease, torture, a low supply of water, lack of food, money extortion and more in both the official and unofficial detention centres.
Learn more about the conditions in migrant detention centres:
UNHCR has access to some detention centres to register asylum seekers and identify and move highly vulnerable populations to safety. Vulnerable populations include women, children and people with health conditions.
COVID-19 has now added another layer to the conditions in Libyan detention centres. Humanitarian workers can not enter the detention centres to register asylum seekers because of fears of the disease spreading. Health experts around the world are recommending people social distance by staying two metres apart from others. If COVID-19 were to plague the facilities, it would be difficult to stop its spread because of inadequate hygiene and close living quarters.
The map below indicates the countries of origin of the 48,626 people who UNHCR has registered in migrant detention centres and urban areas.
The Toronto Observer talked with Rema Jamous Imseis, UNHCR’s representative in Canada, about the conditions in Libya. Jamous, a Canadian herself, returned to Canada earlier this year after working as the UNHCR’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The bulk of people who are sitting in detention are people who’ve either been intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard or has been otherwise intercepted along their route from, in most cases, they’re starting their journeys in sub-Saharan Africa and then moving north,” she said.
UNHCR moves people to temporary transit facilities in Libya, or out of the country to temporary facilities in Rwanda, Niger, Italy and Romania. There are currently only 2,000 spots a year in third countries for refugees coming from Libya or the transit facilities.
Canada is one of the few countries that do resettlement directly from Libya.
“This is a huge contribution on the part of Canada because it allows UNHCR to move people who are extremely vulnerable directly from Libya, out to Canada,” said Jamous. “it gives me immense pride as a Canadian to see the work that Canada does for refugees and with refugees.”
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Another option for people who are not identified as extremely vulnerable is to be sent back to the country they first claimed asylum in if they’ve done this before Libya. It’s not a popular choice because by the time people reach Libya, they have already been through so much. Therefore, many migrants stay in the country by living and working in urban centres.
The UNHCR has been widely criticized for providing inadequate assistance to refugees and asylum seekers both in and outside of detention centres in Libya. This criticism escalated after UNHCR decided to stop supporting its primary transit centre in Libya due to increasing political tensions.
In response, Jamous noted that the UNHCR has to work amidst the larger issues of violence and insecurity in Libya.
She also mentioned that the work humanitarian organizations conduct is not a “substitute for a political solution to a problem.”