When North Africa and the Middle East suddenly erupted in unrest in late winter and early spring 2011, challenging authoritarian governments that had been in power for decades, the rest of the world watched in amazement. While a large-scale exodus did not occur as a result of regime change in Tunisia and Egypt, migrants were trapped amid persistent combat in Libya between forces loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels seeking to overthrow him.
As the civil war in Libya escalated, hundreds of thousands of North Africans and sub-Saharan migrant laborers — who had been welcomed when the country needed workers — fled. Across the Mediterranean, many feared at first that the exodus would head primarily northward into Europe, but the reality turned out to be much more nuanced. (See Issue #1: Fear of Migrant Surge Expose Rift in EU Immigration Policy Circles).
As of early November, more than 768,000 people had left Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM); but most of the Libyans who fled their country amid fighting have already returned. While nearly 26,000 Libyans and perhaps some 20,000 others did make their way to Italy and Malta in 2011 (primarily through the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa), a great many more were migrant workers or asylum seekers residing in Libya at the time of the revolution (so-called third country nationals, or TCNs) who fled home or sought safety in other parts of Africa.
The main destination countries for those fleeing Libya were Tunisia and Egypt, though many also sought refuge in Niger, Chad, and Algeria. According to IOM, about 345,000 headed to Tunisia; 243,000 to Egypt; 85,000 to Niger; 52,700 to Chad; and 14,000 to Algeria. While Tunisia and Egypt received the largest number of TCNs, with 208,500 and 88,200 respectively, 88 percent of those who fled to Algeria were TCNs — the largest proportion by far.
By late October, IOM had assisted in the repatriation of an estimated 76,300 TCNs to their home countries throughout West Africa, including Chad (31,300), Niger (15,000), Ghana (11,300), and Mali (11,000). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted in the repatriation of another 157,000 people. Other returnees have gone home to Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and a dozen other African nations. Those with no place to go — namely from Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan — are seeking asylum in Tunisia and Egypt. Bangladesh, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, and several Western governments also evacuated their citizens from Libya, though with varying degrees of success.
The migrations fueled by the Arab Spring came on the heels of other movements on the African continent prompted by political unrest. In the final weeks of 2010, conditions in Côte d’Ivoire deteriorated to civil war after defeated incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to the newly elected Alassane Outtara. Within a few months, hundreds of thousands of Ivorians were internally displaced and an estimated 200,000 more sought refuge in Liberia and neighboring countries. Currently, there are about 176,300 Ivorian refugees in camps throughout Liberia and another 27,400 in Ghana and other countries throughout West Africa.
Over the past six months, 300,000 Sudanese have been driven from their homes in the Abyei, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan regions to neighboring countries due to attacks by the Sudanese government. The disputed central region of Sudan exploded into violence in May 2011, just weeks before South Sudan officially broke away from the north as the world’s newest nation.
And in Somalia, the region’s worst drought in over 50 years worsened over the summer months, causing famine and the forced migration of more than 270,000 men, women, and children. This recent departure brings the total Somali refugee population to a staggering 900,000, with another 1.5 million internally displaced. Most Somali refugees currently reside in encampments in Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Djibouti.
UNHCR is characterizing this succession of displacement and refugee crises as the most troubling in some time, largely due to the complexity of the conflicts at the root of many of the crises, rising xenophobia, and overall unpredictability of the international environment.