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Libya's expulsion of UN refugee agency puts thousands at risk

The Libyan government's decision to expel the United Nations refugee agency from the country leaves thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers without any protection, Amnesty International has warned.The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on Tuesday that it had been ordered to leave Libya. Amnesty International has appealed to the country's leader, Colonel M'uammar al-Gaddafi, to rescind the decision.The move comes days after the start of negotiations between Libya and the European Union (EU) about the control of irregular migration, among other issues. "The timing of this move could not have been more significant given the negotiations between Libya and the EU," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa programme."Instead of undermining UNHCR's work, the Libyan authorities should strengthen its presence. This further highlights the urgent need to address human rights concerns in relation to Libya's treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants."The UNHCR has been in Libya since 1991, but without any formal agreement, making its position precarious and impeding its ability to carry out protection work.Despite the restrictions, the UNHCR has been fulfilling an essential role in the absence of an asylum-system in Libya and has been providing protection for asylum-seekers and refugees. As of January 2010, 8,951 refugees and 3,689 asylum-seekers were registered with the UNHCR in Libya. It was also engaged in the resettlement of refugees from Libya to third countries. The UNHCR's departure will also affect the neediest refugees and asylum-seekers in urban areas, whom it was assisting by giving out living allowances, housing, medical assistance and other support. In the UNHCR's absence, they will have to fend for themselves, as the Libyan authorities do not grant them any residence papers, the right to work or any allowance."This move leaves thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers in a state of limbo with no possibility of presenting their claims for asylum," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui.The move to expel the UNHCR comes against the backdrop of negotiations, which started on 6 June in Tripoli, between Libya and the EU over bitaretal cooperation in the control of irregular migration.EU members states, most notably Italy, have been seeking Libya's assistance in decreasing the flow of arrivals of asylum-seekers and migrants to European shores. Even with the presence of the UNHCR, the situation of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants -- particularly those from Sub-Saharan Africa -- is precarious. They live in constant fear of being beaten and abused, arrested and placed in detention centres indefinitely, or arbitrarily deported.The Libyan authorities deny the presence of refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, arguing that all foreign nationals in its territory are there for economic reasons.The Libyan authorities continue to arrest and indefinitely detain individuals they suspect of being irregular migrants. Amnesty International has called on EU member states not to turn a blind eye on reports of torture or other ill-treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya.