Uprooted, unprotected: Libya’s displacement crisis
Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on April 21, 2015 regarding Libya’s displacement crisis amid the country’s ongoing violence. The panelists were Houda Mzioudet, a journalist, researcher, and commentator on Libyan and Tunisian affairs; Megan Bradley, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and assistant professor at McGill University, and Ibrahim Sharqieh, the deputy director of the BDC. Sultan Barakat, the BDC’s director of research, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Sultan Barakat opened the discussion by explaining that the main difference between refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) is whether they are able to cross a border. By doing so, refugees gain access to certain types of status and assistance. Otherwise, both groups’ experience of being uprooted is similar, as they are likely to lose their livelihoods, friends, family, and end up in a difficult environment where they are at the mercy of others. Barakat argued that the international community has proven it cannot deal with these challenges, especially in a dignified way, and called for a reexamination of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Ibrahim Sharqieh then described the displacement crisis within Libya, starting with the 2011 revolution that removed Gadhafi from power. He reported that the number of IDPs in the wake of the fighting reached 550,000, most of whom fled for political reasons, as they were Gadhafi supporters. He said that most IDPs returned to their homes after Gadhafi’s defeat, with the numbers falling to 56,000 by early 2014, though some groups such as the Tawerghans and the Mashashya tribe continued to face difficult situations. Sharqieh noted that due to Libya’s current civil war, the number of IDPs has now increased to 400,000. Many of them are scattered over 35 towns and cities, often lacking shelter due to the small number of available camps. He added that Libya’s IDPs often get caught in crossfire between militia groups, particularly in Benghazi and near Tripoli’s airport, and their movements have been restricted. He found that IDPs from Tawergha at the Janzour camp near Tripoli faced discrimination when they left the camp, which extended to their children that attend area schools.
According to Sharqieh, the ultimate solution is a successful transition where there is national reconciliation and the establishment of a transitional justice law, but he noted that this is not very likely because of the ongoing civil war and presence of rival governments. In the meantime, he expressed that parties to the conflict have an obligation to protect IDPs, providing humanitarian support and education as well. Sharqieh also advocated for IDPs being represented in the ongoing U.N.-sponsored negotiations to ensure that their situation is addressed. He reported that the Tawerghans are highly organized, in communication with the state, and have been able to forge some agreements with Misrata, while more recently displaced IDPs are basically just on the run.
Houda Mzioudet then discussed the Libyans who have crossed into Tunisia, noting that Tunisians historically have not considered Libyans refugees because of their close relations. She said that in 2011 these Libyans’ presence was not considered a major problem, as many found refuge with Tunisian families in the south and Tunisia received U.N. support. She noted, however, that a new wave of Libyans last summer had complicated matters, as these communities were more politically and ideologically diverse. Asked by Barakat whether refugees were bringing Libya’s politics with them, Mzioudet said the Libyans were accused at one time of trying to stir up trouble, but the government took a firm stance against them getting involved in Tunisia’s politics.
Mzioudet argued that the main concern now is how Libyans can be assisted, as many of them have lost trust in the Libyan authorities and are fearful of approaching the Libyan embassy. She reported that Libyans are now living in a state of limbo: they do not need visas, which enables them to live underground, but also prevents them from getting jobs. Mzioudet described this as a challenge for Tunisian authorities, as clear information about these Libyans is hard to come by. She cited estimates of their numbers ranging from the government’s 1.5 million (roughly 10 percent of Tunisia’s population) to a recent study’s 300,000-400,000.
Mzioudet noted that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has encouraged Libyans to come forward and register, but many have refused to do so. She also recounted that the Tunisia’s extradition of ex-Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi caused an uproar and frightened many Libyans. Though Mzioudet noted that civil society groups have done much to help Libyan refugee communities, the U.N. has prioritized other needs and Tunisia is not recognized as a host country by international community. She added that at this point some Libyans are not able to make ends meet and some women have turned to prostitution as a result.
Megan Bradley’s presentation stressed the need for a holistic approach to Libya’s displacement crisis and the importance of thinking about the relationships between the refugee and IDP populations. She explained that the accepted durable solutions for each were similar: local integration in the country of asylum or community where they are sheltering, resettlement to a third country or community, or voluntary repatriation in conditions of safety and dignity. Bradley noted that the expectation generally seems to be that repatriation and return will be the predominant approach for Libyan refugees and IDPs, as occurred remarkably quickly following the revolution. She said this was possible largely because Libyans were able to finance their own returns—rare in displacement situations. Similarly, many displaced Libyans are continuing to depend on their own resources, which Bradley warned is not sustainable.
Bradley went on to make four specific points. First, she emphasized that under international law, the return of displaced persons must be voluntary. She argued that the vast majority of Libyan exiles have legitimate security concerns and should benefit from protections against refoulement, defined as the expulsion of vulnerable individuals. Secondly, Bradley said it was time to think about resources and increased donor contributions, challenging as it may be. She then turned to transitional justice and reconciliation, noting how the overly punitive nature of Libya’s political isolation law and the concept of collective responsibility had needlessly increased displacement. Lastly, Bradley called for delivering current support in ways that can lay groundwork for durable solutions, such as getting Libyan children in schools, providing adequate healthcare, and bringing them out of the shadows.
When Barakat asked about European support for Tunisia, Bradley noted that these countries have a huge potential role to play. At the same time, she suggested that the Tunisian government has not forceful enough in requesting their assistance. With regards to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, Bradley and the other panelists urged the international community and especially the European Union to put greater emphasis on resolving the political vacuum in Libya and elsewhere on the continent, while allowing for resettlement and legal labor migration in the meantime. In response to a suggestion from an attendee that Libyans should not be considered refugees because they are all still receiving stipends from Libyan institutions, Bradley countered that refugee status has nothing to do with financial resources, but the need for protection. Mzioudet added that some Libyans have reported that their salaries have been withheld, perhaps for past misdeeds, pushing them into destitution.
Sharqieh condemned the failure to recognize what are clearly refugees in Tunisia as such, suggesting that it is convenient for the UNHCR and government of Tunisia because it limits their obligations. Still, he held that many IDPs would return home given effective rule of law and a reliable judicial system, though otherwise they could not risk it. Barakat closed the discussion by suggesting that, considering the trend of intractable conflicts, it was time for a regional approach to handling the resulting displacement issues.
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