MSF urges more routes to evacuate refugees from Libya

Schemes could include humanitarian corridors and private or community sponsorship, medical charity says

International medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is calling for more schemes to be developed by safe countries in Europe and North America to evacuate desperate refugees and migrants from Libya.

New routes to safety could include new humanitarian corridors, and the chance for people to be sponsored privately or given a new home through community sponsorship, MSF says, allowing safe countries to “assume their responsibilities” and “prevent further abuse, trafficking, violence and torture directed at people who already survived what the United Nations qualifies as crimes against humanity”.

MSF has been working with migrants and refugees in Libya since 2016, one year before the EU began spending tens of millions of euro on supporting the Libyan coastguard, enabling it to intercept boats of people trying to reach Europe. Since then, close to 100,000 men, women and children have been caught on the Central Mediterranean and forcibly returned to Libya. There, they are generally locked up in detention centres that Pope Francis, among others, has compared with concentration camps.

In its new report, MSF said that for many migrants trapped in Libya, including those with “serious physical and mental conditions”, along with victims of torture, there are “no safe options” in the North African country.

Refugees and migrants have two main ways to leave Libya, MSF says. There are so-called “voluntary humanitarian returns”, organised by the International Organisation for Migration with EU funding. “Given the lack of alternatives, particularly for migrants in indefinite detention, the ‘voluntary’ nature of the return is highly debatable,” MSF writes. More than 50,000 people were returned to countries including Somalia, Nigeria, the Gambia and Bangladesh between 2017 and 2021.

Far more restrictive is the chance of evacuation for refugees and asylum seekers who face danger if they return to their countries of origin. Only nine nationalities are allowed to register with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to be considered for evacuation, which usually involves being brought to transit centres in Rwanda or Niger before they may be resettled to countries in North America or Europe. Since 2017, about 7,500 people have been evacuated or resettled. The “primary responsibility” for the lack of evacuation spaces rests with safe countries that are not offering enough, says MSF.

In late 2021, more than 41,000 people were registered with UNHCR, though many others had been delisted after losing contact for a year or more. “UNHCR is cruelly short of slots in third countries, which leads to a strict prioritisation selection among those registered,” MSF writes. In some cases, couples have been separated or minors have turned 18 and lost the chance to be prioritised.

Last October, an independent UN-appointed fact-finding mission found evidence that there are crimes against humanity and war crimes being carried out against refugees and migrants in Libya.