Foreign Affairs Minister Tonio Borg said that it was in Malta’s interest if Libya signed the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees.
The need to encourage Libya to accede to the Refugee Convention was particularly highlighted by the European Court of Human Rights in a decision last February.
The Court found that Italy violated the European Convention of Human Rights when it intercepted and returned to Libya, in 2009, a group of Somalis and Eritreans without examining whether this would constitute a real risk to their lives. The Court made this observation in light of the fact that Libya has not yet ratified the Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum and protection procedure for refugees.
Since the Court’s pronouncement, there has been a significant development. Last April, Italy and Libya signed a new memorandum of understanding regarding migration.
The main focus of this Italian-Libyan move appears to be on stopping irregular migrants from leaving the North African country by sea heading towards the European continent. The agreement seeks to address the issue through facilitating the exchange of information regarding human trafficking operations, with Italy providing Libya technical assistance to monitor its borders and also assisting Tripoli in returning irregular migrants to their countries of origin.
However, it is not yet known whether Libya intends to introduce its own eligibility structure and procedure for people seeking international protection.
Until Libya has its own national eligibility procedure, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is expected to roll up its sleeves to provide those seeking international protection in the country with easily reachable refugee status determination facilities and protection according to its mandate.
With proper UNHCR resources and with the cooperation of the Libyan authorities, this should not be too difficult to achieve. In its efforts to establish a formal agreement with the new authorities, the UNHCR surely knows that its arguments for proper protection space must be closely linked with the development of Libya’s new migration policies. It could also have unparalleled opportunities for advocacy with the Libyan leadership to develop progressive national asylum policies, including accession to the Refugee Convention.
The European Union must do its part too. It must understand that Libya cannot manage the migration phenomenon alone because it does not have the necessary know-how and infrastructure. The EU, therefore, has to re-evaluate the situation and improve it. This must happen not just for the sake of individual forefront EU countries like Italy and Malta but also for the sake of the new Libya and its efforts to ensure a positive experience in the area of human rights.
Problems of displacement continue to be very real in Libya. At the same time, the stream of people from sub-Saharan Africa arriving there is picking up again. With summer approaching, the risk of a new wave of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe is bound to increase.
Malta will continue to have to deal with this phenomenon and must therefore make sure the best possible policies and infrastructure are constantly in place to face present and future scenarios. Replacing the tents at the Ħal Far refugee village with new prefabricated units is certainly a step in the right direction.
Dr Borg’s statement about the prospect of Libya signing the 1951 Refugee Convention should set the ball rolling for an action plan to persuade the international community to motivate and empower Tripoli to do so.
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