The new Libyan government must ensure that an asylum system is in place, the lack of which has pushed thousands of migrants towards Europe in search of protection, according to organisations fighting for their rights.

While agreeing that fallen Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi may have played a part in controlling the flow of irregular migrants out of Libya, the local NGOs feel he was not the reason why migrants fled in the first place.

Last week Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said the Libyan Transitional National Council had discovered documents showing that the Gaddafi regime was behind the irregular immigration phenomenon and used it to create difficulties in Europe and Malta.

“This is a ridiculous statement. Irregular migration is not about Gaddafi but about war, conflict, poverty and the securitisation of borders,” said Maria Pisani from Integra Foundation.

Katrine Camilleri, from the Jesuit Refugee Services, shared her view. “Malta’s recent experience has shown that the Libya-to-Malta or Italy route is not simply an irregular immigration route but an asylum route... They travelled to Europe in search of protection, having escaped from war or repressive regimes in their own countries, because they did not find meaningful protection in the countries through which they transited.”

Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no asylum legislation in place. Thousands of African migrants have arrived in Malta in the past decade, practically leaving from the Libyan coast. More than half were granted some form of protection in Malta.

Figures released by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Malta, show that over 1.3 million people have fled from Libya since March, with 1,557 of them reaching Malta.

Until June, five people had been granted refugee status, 370 subsidiary protection, 36 asylum claims were rejected, while eight were granted temporary humanitarian protection.

“It’s no secret that UNHCR’s history in Libya under the Gaddafi regime has been a difficult one,” a spokesman for the UN agency said. “The lack of a national asylum system in the country has been well documented and commented upon.... Most of the refugees UNHCR has dealt with in Libya are Palestinians and Iraqis, with others typically coming from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Liberia and Ethiopia. It is, however, also important to note that many foreigners who were staying in Libya were there as migrant workers rather than as refugees.”

The spokesman said UNHCR hoped that a new Libya government would be open to explore options to pave the way for the development of a national asylum system.

Ms Pisani and Dr Camilleri agreed adding that, for too long, EU governments had focused on controlling borders and did not pay enough attention to what was causing people to leave their countries.

“Governments’ reaction to migration has been grounded in the securitisation of borders and this had generated fear that Gaddafi has tapped into,” Ms Pisani said.

In fact, Dr Camilleri went on to elaborate, Gaddafi encouraged the perception that he was somehow in control of the migrant flow by making “not so veiled” threats about the flood of immigrants that would swamp Europe if his requests for financial support, among other things, were not acceded to.

Last year Gaddafi warned that his country would no longer be a coastguard for Europe if he was not given €5 billion a year from the EU to stop “black” migrants from overwhelming Europe.

“Even if it were true that migrants were transiting through Libya because this route allowed them to reach European shores, this fact is only a very small part of a much bigger picture,” Dr Camilleri said.

“Simply putting more effective border controls in place is not a solution, as it fails to address the reasons why people are leaving. In a world where so many thousands of people are forced to flee each day in search of protection, it is our hope that all the states in the region, our own included, will provide meaningful protection to all who need it and who are within their effective jurisdiction,” she said.

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