When we met in Niger last month, Helen* described the horrific year she had spent in Libya. She talked of the brutality of human smugglers, of being detained with hundreds of others in deplorable conditions without enough food.
The 20-year-old Eritrean is one of roughly 1,000 refugees from East Africa who have been evacuated by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from Libya’s detention centers to its southern neighbor, Niger. That program is now under threat.
While Helen has made it to the safety of Niger, she is deeply concerned about the people she left behind. She told me she has received desperate phone calls from them wondering when they might be evacuated. “They say, It’s like we are alive, but we are dead,” she said.
Niger generously agreed to host these refugees temporarily while European countries process their asylum cases far from the violence and chaos of Libya and proceed to their resettlement. In theory it should mean a few weeks in Niger until they are safely transferred to countries such as France, Germany or Sweden, which would open additional spaces for other refugees trapped in Libya.
But the resettlement process has been much slower than anticipated, leaving Helen and hundreds of others in limbo and hundreds or even thousands more still in detention in Libya. Several European governments have pledged to resettle 2,483 refugees from Niger, but since the program started last November, only 25 refugees have actually been resettled – all to France.
As a result, UNHCR announced last week that Niger authorities have requested that the agency halt evacuations until more refugees depart from the capital, Niamey. For refugees in Libya, this means their lifeline to safety has been suspended.
Many of the refugees I met in Niger found themselves in detention after attempting the sea journey to Europe. Once intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, they were returned to Libya and placed in detention centers run by Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The E.U. has prioritized capacity building for the Libyan coast guard in order to increase the rate of interceptions. But it is an established fact that, after being intercepted, the next stop for these refugees as well as migrants is detention without any legal process and in centers where human rights abuses are rife.
David*, a 26-year-old refugee from South Sudan, told me he spent 17 hours at sea before he and more than 100 others were picked up by the Libyan coast guard and taken to a detention center in Tripoli. David said that he and other sub-Saharan Africa refugees and migrants were given worse treatment than others because of their skin color. He said that once, when he was unwell, he waited in line to be taken to a clinic. He recalled that, even though he had arrived earlier, the guard in charge took three men from Morocco first. “[When] I said I came here before them, [the guard said], ‘You’re black, you’re a slave.’”
To be clear, evacuating refugees from Libya and resettling them from Niger is a humanitarian necessity. It does not absolve European governments of their responsibilities to push for an end to Libya’s criminalization of irregular migration and detention of refugees and undocumented migrants. European governments work very hard at great expense to stop people from crossing the Mediterranean Sea. This includes support for a system that picks up refugees and migrants at sea and deposits them to captivity and abuse.
Until that system comes to an end, the evacuation program must go forward as quickly as possible. The alternative is leaving people in inhumane conditions where they face rape, beatings, forced labor and racism, and where those responsible are not held accountable.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and is already host to more than 160,000 refugees from Mali and Nigeria. It should come as no surprise that its government is only willing to continue the evacuation program if wealthy nations do their part with the urgency that the situation demands. And given that this is a new process, it is bound to have complications and delays.
Nonetheless, all parties, including UNHCR, the E.U., and governments involved in resettlement must work as quickly and as cooperatively as possible to make it a success. At the end of the day, those who are paying the price are the men, women and children who have survived unimaginable abuse, and for whom each extra day spent in detention in Libya is life threatening.
*The names of the refugees cited here have been changed to protect their identity. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.