While many Egyptians today fear violence at the polls, the non-Egyptians in their midst worry that the elections will bring increased xenophobia and widespread abuse of migrants. As we've blogged before, though the Arab spring promises liberation for many native North Africans, the migrant workers in their midst have faced deteriorating security and significant rights violations. And those North Africans who've attempted to flee to Europe to escape instability have been met with unwelcoming conditions, to say the least.
How should international migration law and policy move forward from here? This month, Dr. Khalid Koser published a report entitled Responding to Migration from Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: Lessons Learned from Libya that assesses international responses to the migration dimensions of the Libyan crisis, finding serious shortfalls in strategic planning and drawing out lessons for future complex migration crises.
The study notes that over 1 million people from Libya and Tunisia, including nationals, migrant workers, refugees and asylum-seekers, have been displaced internally and internationally. This massive migration has challenged basic services delivery, such as health, food, and shelter, and increased the vulnerability of migrants. Though the crisis in Libya is headed to resolution, Dr. Koser reminds us that this type of complex migration is likely to recur in the future due to environmental change and military intervention among other factors. The particular challenge inherent in these situations is that different categories of migrants move together so it is difficult to distinguish those entitled to special protection.
In the case of Libya, there were about 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees registered by UNHCR at the beginning of the crisis. By June 2011, 500,000 migrant workers had left Libya, largely for Tunisia and Egypt. About half of these migrants were third country nationals, 60,000 of whom were flown home (35,000 to China). As for Libyans themselves, though many have now returned, nearly 175,000 sought refugee in Egypt and nearly 325,000 fled to Tunisia. A far smaller number tried to enter Europe (43,000 from North Africa in total). About 150,000 people have been displaced within Libya.
How have countries and international organizations responded to the crisis? These internally displaced fared the worst, as humanitarian organizations were unable to penetrate Libya's borders. These IDPs will have significant needs once the country stabilizes, including access to their property, personal documentation, family reunification, and reconciliation with those who were not displaced.
For those able to escape, Egypt and Tunisia deserve kudos for keeping their borders open despite the significant pressure on public services resulting from the influx. The United Kingdom and the ICRC provided significant international assistance to those who crossed into Egypt and Tunisia, including enabling migrant workers to return to their home countries. This portion of the crisis response, in particular involving significant cooperation between UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, was perhaps the most successful. However, it was still difficult for many countries to address the return of migrant workers, given their poor economic circumstances and dependence on remittances from these workers.
Ironically, the most vociferously negative response has come from Europe, which received the smallest number of migrants. Most of those who made it to Lampedusa have now been transferred to Italy for processing, though this has not been without political ramifications (further described here). In the meantime, FRONTEX has stepped up maritime operations and the EU has offered financial assistance and training to the coastguard in Tunisia. France and Italy are undertaking joint patrols by sea.
Dr. Koser draws out several important policy questions from these responses. How can the international community better protect internally displaced persons? Faced with only a set of non-binding principles that draw from existing international law, international organizations have faced serious obstacles in their efforts to offer aid to IDPs. Are migrant workers to be considered internally displaced persons? The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement do not offer a clear response to this question, potentially leaving such migrants without even the limited protections accorded IDPs. Do we need a new UN agency to protect non-refugee migrants in need of protection and assistance? Though existing agencies worked together in response to the Libyan crisis, it's still unclear who deserves what level of international protection, and more importantly whether the current hierarchy of protection is appropriate for modern humanitarian crises.