Anywhere But Here: Refugee Processing Centers in Libya
Refugee Rights News
Volume 1 Issue 1
European governments may speak in varied voices on refugee policy, but throughout there runs an anxiety about how to balance the fears about the presence of asylum seekers, caused by the suspicion that they bring with them crime, poverty, disease, and even the shadow of terrorism, and the values of human rights and openness, which call for embracing those who would face persecution. And, while there may not be consensus, “anywhere but here” is becoming a familiar refrain. The most recent example of this is the recent Italian and German proposal to create EU processing centers for asylum seekers in northern Africa, including Libya.
Overseas processing centers are not new in global refugee policy; ten years ago the United States was using its facility at Guantanamo base in Cuba to process Haitians trying to make their way to the United States by boat. The Australians employed a similar idea in the wake of the Tampa crisis in 2001, creating processing centers for intercepted asylum seekers on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Vanuatu.
The Italian and German proposals to create refugee processing centers in Libya that were recently presented to the EU are far from the first proposals to import the “offshore processing” model to Europe. Britain forwarded a similar proposal last year, suggesting that offshore “transit centers” were a necessary measure in the effort to stop human trafficking. On their long list of potential sites for the centers were Morocco, Romania and Ukraine. This was modified by a proposal to create regional protection zones in areas which are prone to conflict.
Other variations on the theme include a Swiss proposal, also dating from 2003 to create a “transit center” in Senegal to which Switzerland could deport and hold Africans whose identities had not been established. That proposal was defeated when both Senegalese and Swiss organizations swung into action to oppose the measure. The Swiss Refugee Council and the Swiss section of Amnesty International questioned why such identification could not take place in Switzerland and whether appropriate monitoring of the centers could be carried out. Meanwhile, the West African Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons Network (WARIPNET) and Recontre Africain pour la Défense de Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO) lead the charge on the Senegalese side taking the matter to the Senegalese Parliament. The Parliament ultimately refused to accept the agreement (for more information see “Senegalese, Swiss NGOs Defeat Delicate Accord,” in Africa Refugee Rights News Vol. 1, Issue 1).
The current Italian and German proposal similarly faces opposition from many sides. Criticism was intensified when Italy reportedly deported hundreds of asylum seekers from a facility on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa without appropriate evaluation of their protection needs earlier this month. UNHCR expressed “grave concern” over the situation and asked for access to asylum seekers in both Italy and Libya, access which was eventually granted on the Italian side, but, tellingly, not on the Libyan side. The Libyan refusal to allow access to UNHCR casts serious doubts on their willingness to provide protection to asylum seekers.
These doubts were reflected by the Italian Council for Refugees (CIR). Christopher Hein, Director of the Italian Council for Refugees, asked "what guarantees are there that Libya, a country which is not party to the 1951 Geneva Convention, will not forcibly return these persons to their country of origin?" The CIR also speculated that a secret readmission agreement between the Libyan and Italian authorities might even already be in place. The agreement, if it indeed exists, would raise serious concerns both about Italy’s refugee protection credentials, if not its democratic ones, as the agreement has apparently never been forwarded to the Italian parliament. Elsewhere in Europe, Amnesty International and the German NGO, Pro Asyl, have spoken out against the idea.
The Libyan League for Human Rights has also vehemently criticized Libya’s qualifications as a host, saying that the country did not have “the necessary asylum laws, structures or profile to deal with these issues” and pointing out that the “Government of President Qaddhafi has proved over the last thirty five years an unprecedented contempt to equity and fair and independent justice through permanent violation of basic human rights of its citizens.” The Libyan League for Human Rights also condemned the impulse to shift responsibility for asylum seekers away from Europe saying that “[d]emocratic Governments do not subcontract (bribe!) the implementation of their policies.”
In the end, however, perhaps the most conclusive criticism came not from an NGO, but from French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was quote in the UK’s Independent newspaper as saying, “for France, it’s out of the question to accept transit camps or shelters of any kind.”
While Mr. Villepin’s comments appear to have effectively quashed discussion of the idea at the moment, the history of similar proposals suggests that we have not seen the last of the idea that asylum seekers belong “anywhere but here.”