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For migrants abused in Libya, Europe extends a thin lifeline

Why We Wrote This

How far beyond their national borders should European governments go to rescue refugees threatened by violence? And how many such victims is the European public ready to shelter? Monitor correspondents Peter Ford and Scott Peterson traveled to Niger together this fall, reporting on how the landlocked country has become a cornerstone of the European Union’s immigration policy. Read the full report here. 

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Lucas Guffanti of the French refugee resettlement agency OFPRA interviews an Eritrean migrant for final approval to relocate to France on Oct. 3, 2018, in Niamey, Niger. To stem illegal migration, the EU is spending $270 million on an "Emergency Trust Fund" in Niger, part of a security-development package that has seen the number of migrants heading north drop from 334,000 in 2016 to fewer than 50,000 in 2018.

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Europe is the goal. But many African migrants’ journeys stop short in Libyan detention camps, rife with abuse and even enslavement. Nearly 56,000 asylum seekers have registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Libya. Today, through a fledgling program called the Emergency Transit Mechanism, the UNHCR has airlifted some 1,850 out of the country, mostly to Niger. From there they are put in touch with European refugee agencies which cannot work in Libya because of the risks. Six European governments have sent officials to interview asylum seekers pre-vetted by the UN and have pledged new homes to 2,680. This is a drop in the ocean of asylum seekers, and the procedures are agonizingly slow. To critics, the Emergency Transit Mechanism is just a salve for Europe’s conscience. But its officials say it is an attempt to save lives. “This way, refugees can avoid making the terrible journeys across the Mediterranean,” says Pascal Brice, head of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People.

Critics say it is just a hypocritical exercise to salve Europe’s conscience. But for Alessandra Morelli, the local head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an unusual international effort to rescue refugees from Libya and give them new homes “brings people back to life.”

Mohammed (not his real name), a lanky, corkscrew-haired young man, is one of them. A pro soccer player, he fled his home in Somalia three days after Islamist gunmen threatened to kill him if he played another game for his government-supported team.

His yearlong journey on the migrant trail toward Europe wound through Yemen and Sudan, and ended in a Libyan detention camp, where he was beaten and tortured. But today he is safe here in Niamey, the capital of Niger, patiently answering questions about his family put to him by a young woman from the French refugee settlement agency. 

Mohammed is within touching distance of a new life in France. He is in a distinct minority: nearly 56,000 asylum seekers have registered with the UNHCR in Libya, but by the beginning of October it had been able to airlift only some 1,850 – those in greatest danger. More than 1,500 of them were sent to the Nigerien capital for processing. 

The Emergency Transit Mechanism, as the airlift program is called, is a fledgling system to get asylum seekers out of militia-run jails in Libya. It puts them in touch with European refugee agencies which cannot work in Libya because of the risks, but which can send teams to somewhere like Niger.

“This way, refugees can avoid making the terrible journeys across the Mediterranean” that often end in death, explains Pascal Brice, head of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People, which has sent five missions to Niamey.

Six European governments have sent officials to interview asylum seekers pre-vetted by the UNHCR; so far they have resettled 494 of them and approved another 397, and they have pledged to offer new homes to a total of 2,680, according to Ms. Morelli.

This is a drop in the ocean of asylum seekers, and the procedures are agonizingly slow; many of the refugees from Libya have been in Niamey for close to a year. But even when there are no doubts about a refugee’s right to asylum, and when he or she has been raped, enslaved, or tortured by Libyan captors, “migration is political,” Morelli points out. “Governments have to build agreements at home” to accept refugees, and in the current climate in Europe, few have so far shown the political will to join even this emergency effort.

Some EU politicians have proposed offshoring their countries’ asylum application process to African cities as a way to stem the flow of migrants onto European soil. But Morelli and everyone else involved in the Emergency Transit Mechanism are quick to insist that it is designed to meet a separate need.

“Keeping refugees out of sight and out of mind like that would be a nightmare,” says Mr. Brice. “We have to do what we can to avoid people trying to cross the sea, but what we are doing in Niamey is on top of our duties to those who do arrive in Europe, not instead of them.”

Nigerien Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum is equally emphatic. Setting up a European asylum center in Niamey “is an impertinent idea that makes no sense,” he says. “It would attract everyone in Africa to come here with his story of persecution and try to win the resettlement lottery. Our country will not be used that way.”

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