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Grounds for concern in Libya - UNHCR

Immigrants spoke of "appalling" detention conditions in Libya. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Immigrants spoke of "appalling" detention conditions in Libya. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The UN refugee agency has "serious grounds for concern" over the situation of illegal immigrants in Libya, after hearing accounts of "appalling" detention conditions, instances of abuse and exposure to sexual harassment.

Reacting to a recent report by the Jesuit Refugee Service, which was rubbished as "propaganda" by Libyan Foreign Minister Mousa Kousa during his visit to Malta last Wednesday, a UNHCR spokesman said this was one of several reports highlighting the problematic situation.

"References to discrimination, mistreatment and sub-standard conditions are common to most of these reports," he said.

JRS' report, based on interviews with migrants who reached Europe, spoke of death, violence and racism as being the order of the day in Libya. The migrants claimed they were refused medical care and fed just two bread rolls a day.

However, due to restricted access, the UNHCR could not report on specific episodes in Libya where they had witnessed violence or degrading treatment.

"In Libya, our office is not even officially recognised as a regular UNHCR presence. As a result, while we do visit a number of detention centres, the UNHCR does not have access to the border zones in the south or the east where the majority of asylum seekers enter the country."

Despite this, the UNHCR and its partners have in recent years been able to gain access to 15 detention centres in Libya.

"In our view, most of the detention and holding centres we have seen are of very poor standard. They suffer from overcrowding, inadequate sanitation and health facilities. These conditions were exacerbated by the 'push back' (policy) by Italy, leading to overcrowding in detention facilities," the spokesman said.

During his visit to Malta, Mr Kousa said NGOs were using the issue for propaganda purposes without offering any assistance to immigrants.

"We ask the NGOs to come to Libya and provide treatment, care and shelter to these immigrants," he said, adding that Libya had a population of six million, with two million illegal immigrants: "We are acting as guards to Europe, and Libya might not be able to continue to do this."

The UNHCR said the role of NGOs was to assist and defend the rights of people in need, not to gain sympathy.

In detention centres, the agency interviews detainees to identify anyone who may wish to seek asylum, or cannot return to their home country for fear of persecution.

"We do so in an effort to detect and differentiate them from other migrants who are moving because of economic or other reasons."

Where asylum seekers are detected, the UNHCR asks the Libyan authorities to release them for interview and asylum assessment.

Since 2008, some 637 refugees and asylum seekers have been released from various detention and holding centres.

The UNHCR is also working with partners, some of which are closely linked with the Libyan authorities, to improve the basic infrastructure of detention facilities.

cperegin@timesofmalta.com

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