Displacement in Libya: Humanitarian Priorities

Khalid Koser
Khalid Koser Executive Director - Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund

August 15, 2011

Speaking last Thursday UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern over civilian casualties in Libya. His remarks came in response to a NATO air strike on Libyan State Television transmitters last month, and other more recent strikes that have allegedly killed civilians, an especially poignant mistake given that the principal rationale for UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was to protect civilians from Colonel Gaddafi.

But there is another civilian population equally in need of protection from whom attention seems to have fallen away in recent weeks, and that is the displaced within and from Libya. As is so often the case with humanitarian emergencies, media and public attention on the plight of the displaced has waned considerably since Beth Ferris drew attention to this crisis in her web-editorial in March.

To be sure, the scale of displacement has subsided considerably, but some of the most challenging work remains in the weeks, months and years ahead.

At its peak during the first week of March some 77,000 people crossed the Libyan border into Egypt and around 1,000 people per hour were crossing the border into Tunisia, according to Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics. Today cross-border movements out of Libya are minimal as solutions have been found for many of those displaced: around 60,000 migrant workers have been evacuated from Libya or neighboring countries to some 30 countries of origin worldwide, ranging from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Vietnam; while 144,000 of the 172,873 Libyans who entered Egypt have since returned home, as have the majority of the 321,830 who arrived in Tunisia. Boat arrivals in Lampedusa, Sicily and in Malta also appear to have stopped, though not before two boats capsized with the loss of at least five hundred lives. Still, significant displaced populations remain in a vulnerable situation and require international protection and assistance. UNHCR estimates that there are around 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Eastern Libya, around 58,000 of them in IDP settlements and camps. A proportion of IDPs in Libya may be migrant workers who have become stranded en route to border crossings. Another category of concern is around 3,500 asylum seekers and 8,000 refugees registered by UNHCR in Libya before the uprising, the majority from Iraq, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Palestine, Somalia and Sudan. It remains unclear what has happened to these people or what their status is. Some may indeed be asylum seekers and refugees who had been registered in Libya, but others may be migrant workers – and in particular irregular migrants – who have crossed the border and subsequently claimed asylum. What is clear is that the full case load of asylum seekers and refugees registered in Libya remains unaccounted for and that there is still a significant IDP population as well.

Immediate-, medium- and long-term actions are required to deal with this ongoing humanitarian crisis, and to stop it escalating.


In the immediate-term, the humanitarian priority is to fill the gaps in protection and assistance identified above. In response to ongoing protection needs for IDPs in Libya, UNHCR has recently announced a series of training workshops on the rights of IDPs for the Department of Justice of the Transitional National Council in Libya, and in collaboration with Mercy Corps, for the Libyan Red Crescent Society. UNHCR continues to provide support to the asylum seekers, refugees and others of concern to the agency in camps on the borders, although it has warned of a funding shortfall of some USD 30 million that may affect these operations. Most of the refugees on the border are from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan where they cannot easily be returned, and so UNHCR is focusing its efforts on finding resettlement options for them in third countries. In an effort to try to support registered refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, national staff has kept open the UNHCR office in Tripoli and established a hotline, but UNHCR reckons that thousands of registered refugees and asylum seekers do not have any form of access to the office. Between them, International Organization for Migration and UNHCR are processing the ‘boat people’ who have arrived in Lampedusa and Malta in order to try to identify those with a genuine claim for refugee status or other forms of international protection. Continued collaboration between international and local agencies will be needed to respond to the immediate humanitarian needs.


A medium-term priority is to prepare for the possibility of further displacement, especially from Libya, but also potentially from Syria and other countries affected by the Arab Spring. Evacuating the relatively few remaining migrant workers on the Egyptian and Tunisian borders is considered a priority in order both to avoid the development of a humanitarian crisis there and to free up space for potential new arrivals. Equally important is to encourage Egypt and Tunisia to keep their borders open to people in search of safety from the conflicts.  More pressure may be required on others of Libya’s neighbors to allow access for migrants fleeing the crisis across their borders. There are legitimate reasons for safeguarding EU borders against a large-scale influx, through enhanced surveillance, maritime operations and border controls. But the quid pro quo is the need to support the capacity of Libya’s immediate neighbours, and other potential receiving countries in the region, to process asylum applications, protect refugee, and support migrants. If very significant numbers of those migrant workers who remain in Libya go home, some of their countries of origin may also require support to reintegrate them. These measures would be of immediate importance, but are likely to require years to come to full fruition.

Looking to the future, it will also be necessary to prepare for the return of IDPs within Libya. Problems commonly experienced by returning IDPs include regaining access to their property, reissuing lost personal documentation, reuniting families that may have become divided during displacement, supporting the reestablishment of livelihoods and in some cases providing for reconciliation between those who were displaced and those who were not.  If the crisis in Libya is resolved soon, many of the evacuated migrant workers can also be expected to try to return, raising logistical challenges concerning entry visas, work permits and access to jobs.


The longer-term displacement-related priority in the Middle East and North Africa is not to react to the current or potential displacement effects of the Arab Spring, but proactively to address the underlying causes for high levels of emigration from the region. This includes supporting democracy and the rule of law, promoting education and encouraging employment-generation.