Leaving Libya by boat: What happens after interception?

Published: 4 Apr 2018
By: Jeff Crisp - Refugee Studies Centre and Chatham House


Refugees and migrants who are trying to escape from Libya by boat are often intercepted at sea by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard and disembarked on land, where they are provided with immediate assistance by humanitarian agencies. Little is known about the interception process or what happens to refugees and migrants who have been returned to Libya. On 14 March, Jeff Crisp put some questions to UNHCR’s Senior External Relations Officer in Tripoli, who provided the following written replies.


Does UNHCR have an opportunity to identify those people who have been intercepted at sea and who have refugee status or a pending asylum claim?

Libya has yet to enact national legislation to provide the basis for a functioning asylum system. Therefore, part of our engagement is also to advocate for a functioning asylum system to be set-up, and protection safeguards to be in place, to ensure persons in need of international protection are safe. However, given the current operational landscape, efforts in this regard remain challenging. In the meantime, UNHCR undertakes registration activities in Libya and will continue to do so.

There are currently 48,485 registered refugees and asylum seekers with UNHCR in Libya. 3,773 were registered with UNHCR in 2018 alone. Some 10,600 of the registered refugees and asylum seekers were registered over the last two years, as part of the mixed migration flow. The rest, the majority from Middle East countries, have been living in Libya for many years and are integrated in the community. UNHCR outreach teams also visit regularly vulnerable refugees and community leaders to identify persons of concern to UNHCR.

Is there any evidence that the Libyan coastguard use excessive force or commit human rights abuses when returning people who are intercepted at sea?

UNHCR is not present at sea and therefore is not unable to qualify any incident of this sort. However, UNHCR itself has not witnessed such human rights abuses at disembarkation points. We cover six disembarkation points in terms of humanitarian and medical assistance (the other six are covered by IOM) but we cover all 12 in terms of protection monitoring (including an initial unofficial registration of people of concern to UNHCR.

Are the people who are intercepted and disembarked routinely placed in detention?

To UNHCR’s knowledge, yes. Once refugees and migrants are disembarked in Libya, there are taken to a detention centre, transferred by detention authorities  It must be noted that first and foremost, as a matter of principle, we are opposed to the detention of refugees, particularly of women and children.  While we oppose detention, we help refugees wherever they are, including in detention. Our work in detention centres responds to a humanitarian imperative to save lives and reach out to refugees wherever they are.

Our priority is the protection of refugees and ensuring they have access to their rights. In light of this, we have been advocating for alternatives to detention in Libya. While there is still a lot of work to do, this year alone we have managed to release 969 refugees from detention in Libya (and last year our advocacy led to the release of 1,430 people.

Do UNHCR have an opportunity to accompany these people once they leave their port of disembarkation?

UNHCR teams are present both at disembarkation points and at detention centres, but they do not accompany refugees and migrants from one location to the other, as the transfer is undertaken by authorities and not by UNHCR.  However, given the initial registration conducted at disembarkation points, we can follow up on people who are of concern to UNHCR when sent to detention centres.

What happens to someone who is disembarked and who is suffering from a serious medical condition or severe trauma?

UNHCR medical teams and protection teams are present at disembarkation points on a routine basis, every time UNHCR is alerted by the Coastguard that a disembarkation is taking place. Individuals suffering from serious medical conditions or trauma are attended by the medical team and, when needed, transferred to hospitals (either by UNHCR or by the authorities themselves). Upon arrival at specific detention centres, UNHCR medical teams are also present to provide follow-up assistance. UNHCR and IMC provided over 36.000 medical consultations in 2017 at disembarkation points, at detention centres, and at UNHCR Community Development Centres.

Are any special provisions made for unaccompanied children?

Yes, UNHCR follows procedures in accordance with its internal guidelines on addressing the protection needs of unaccompanied and separated children and advocates for standardised procedures by the authorities. Normally, most unaccompanied minors of concern to UNHCR are evacuated or resettled following a best interest determination.

If people are placed in detention, does UNHCR have any access to them?

Yes, UNHCR has access to official detention centres in the country and undertakes regular monitoring visits. Upon the arrival of those disembarked to detention centres, UNHCR teams are usually present in the detention centre to provide humanitarian and medical assistance.In 2017, UNHCR undertook 1,080 monitoring visits to detention centre. In 2018, so far, we have undertaken more than 250 visits. UNHCR also registers refugees inside detention centres for the purpose of humanitarian evacuations.

Since November, UNHCR has evacuated 1,334 individuals out of Libya to its Emergency Transit Mechanism in Niger (1,020) as well as Italy and Romania. Priority is given to persons of concern in detention, which we have released, and to vulnerable persons of concern. In 2018, there are plans to resettle/evacuate more than 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers out of Libya. So far, we have processed 477 people for direct resettlement out of Libya.

Is there any evidence to suggest that people who are disembarked are subsequently “sold on” to militia groups, smugglers or employers?

UNHCR is unable to comment on this question, as it does not have evidence in this respect.

Does UNHCR have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Libyan coastguard or Government of National Accord with respect to their access to people who are returned and disembarked, and the kind of assistance they can be provided with.  If so, can a copy of be placed in the public domain?

UNHCR does not have a memorandum of understanding with authorities regulating its presence in the country. UNHCR’s cooperation with the Libyan coastguard has as its primary objective to save lives and ensure the early identification and immediate protection of UNHCR persons of concern, mainly refugees and asylum-seekers. We do not have a memorandum of understanding with the coastguard.

As part of the response to mixed maritime movements, appropriate disembarkation and reception arrangements are needed to ensure that the immediate basic needs of people involved in such movements can be met and tailored according to their specific needs. UNHCR conducts regular capacity building activities with the coastguard on international refugee law. Together with IOM, UNHCR is working on a set of procedures that outline the process to follow when refugees and migrants are disembarked in Libya.

Has the EU placed any restrictions on UNHCR with respect to the information that the agency can provide in response to these questions?

No restrictions have been placed on UNHCR.



(Image: UNHCR/ Guardia Costiera / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Programmes: Rights in Exile
Regions: North and Horn of Africa
Type: IRRI Blog