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  • Rory O'Keeffe

UNHCR's flawed approach to Africa

The United Nations says it has moved 25 ‘extremely vulnerable’ refugees from Libya to Niger, in the first stage of its new – deeply questionable – policy on refugees in Africa.

UNHCR says it has moved the refugees from Libya both because they – 15 women, six men, and four children from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – are in urgent need of relocation, and because Libya itself is in the fourth year of its second civil war since 2011, and in chaos with two illegitimate governments and war-lords effectively running fiefdoms all over the state.

The second point is certainly true, and there is absolutely no reason to believe UNHCR would be lying about the first.

Equally, the 25 people will live in a hotel in Niamey until their applications for resettlement are processed, which is certainly a positive thing and should be welcomed.

However, UNHCR plans to move refugees en masse from Libya, as its Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation Vincent Cochetel has confirmed. And as he says, this cannot be done on the basis of moving everyone to hotels in other countries.

And this is where the problem lies. Because the UN’s policy appears to be to send people to some of the world’s poorest (with only a couple of exceptions) and least appropriate nations.

It notes that there are 277,000 people currently stranded in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia, and that the world must open 40,000 places for relocation from them, but the first state it has relocated people to from one of those states, Libya, is another one, Niger.

Niger itself cannot grow enough food for its population, but it is hardly the only state unsuitable for moving refugees to.

The Sudanese government is launching airstrikes on two of its own regions, continues attacks on Darfur, and has a growing population of South Sudanese refugees; Libya is the state UNHCR is moving refugees away from; Egypt is run by a dictator who shot his way to power, is still running a political crack-down and has embarked on the systematic arrest of gay people; the Kenyan government threatens about once per year to close down its largest refugee camp Dadaab (the second-largest on Earth) and force everyone in it to go ‘home’; Cameroon is on the brink of civil war; Chad, Djibouti and Ethiopia are all in the process of recovering form civil or international wars, and the Chadean and Ethiopian governments are not renowned for their welcoming of those who oppose or disagree with them.

The idea of moving refugees from Libya to any of these states makes very little sense at all, until one considers that the entire process of taking refugees and holding them in one place distant from the place they are likely, and want, to be relocated to while their applications are processed is almost identical to the ‘hot spot’ programme preferred by Australia and the EU.

In fact, this programme has been openly backed by France, Germany and others, and France, Germany, Spain and the EU have already pledged to open ‘centres’ in Chad and Niger where people can stay while their applications are considered.

The reasons so far offered for this tend to centre on the breaking of criminal ‘trafficiking’ rings (though the vast majority of refugees are not being trafficked, they are being smuggled), on the fact that Libya is not safe (but neither are several other places UNHCR and the EU suggests they should stay instead) and that the attempt to cross the Mediterranean is dangerous.

The latter point is starkly true. This year 152,341 people have crossed the Mediterranean, and 2,992 have died in the attempt. The majority of them – 114,250, and 2,800 respectively, have come from Libya towards Italy.

But there is no way on Earth one could pretend that the only – let alone the best – alternative to this is to force refugees into unsafe states, or those incapable of looking after them.

The UNHCR policy which would make most sense – by far – would be to set up a system under which refugees in Libya are not scattered south, but taken north, to EU states, where the world’s richest political bloc, and a haven of (martial, at least) stability, can ensure they are fed, sheltered, and safe from harrying, harassment or violence, while their applications are processed.

The reason this is not happening is not because the ‘African option’ is more sensible, or in any way ‘better’. It is not even easier. It is because the EU would prefer to roll out the ‘hotspot’ – by which it means detention centre – plan, and keep refugees from ever coming close to its borders.

And we should not forget that in the case of the EU – as in the case of Australia – the detention centres’ first priority is deterrence. Just as the EU is effectively paying the coastguards of Turkey and Libya not to save lives but to ‘police’ their coats and use whatever means necessary to prevent people leaving their states’ territorial waters for the EU, so the hotspots on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and other Aegean islands, are designed to ensure that refugees do not enjoy their time.

At Lesvos, there is electricity and water (almost never hot water) for just a couple of hours each day. And Lesvos is in the EU.

From an EU perspective, it is an immoral and unpleasant policy to refuse to take the easiest, and easily affordable, step of helping refugees to cross to the EU, where they can stay while their applications are processed, and instead to choose to hold desperate people in pens, in states which the EU is perfectly well aware are unlikely to be able to offer comfort or security to them.

But for UNHCR, its decision to simply bow to the EU’s wishes despite their clear infringement (at best) of human rights of men, women and children fleeing war, starvation, chaos and terror, is astonishing.

It may well be that the organisation has decided it does not have the political clout to convince the EU to do the easiest and legally (and morally) correct thing, and in fact it has asked, repeatedly, for nations all over the world to offer urgently needed places for refugees.

But in that case, we must ask again whether the UN is fit for purpose, and in a world which certainly urgently needs it, how we can make it so.

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