Among the migrants who found themselves caught up in Libya during last year’s war was a group of people whom one University of Oxford researcher calls “invisible”: refugees who travel to third countries for work or better education.
Wedged between violence, politics, overlapping identities and restrictive definitions, these “refugee-migrants” or “refugee-students” are often overlooked and under-protected, according to Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, a lecturer in forced migration at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre.
“Certain displaced populations have been hyper-visible whilst others have effectively been rendered invisible to (and by) the international community,” she writes in an article soon to be published by the International Journal of Refugee Law, called Invisible Refugees and/or Overlapping Refugeedom? Protecting Sahrawis and Palestinians Displaced by the 2011 Libyan Uprising. An earlier version of her paper was recently published by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as part of its New Issues in Refugee Research Series.
The conflict in Libya has highlighted potential gaps in the protection of Palestinian refugees who have migrated to a third country and raised complex questions about who should protect them – and how – in the case of crisis. It is a question of increasing relevance as the situation in Syria,home to half a million Palestinian refugees, becomes more unstable.
Though some estimates are as low as 30,000, the Palestinian Authority estimates there were up to 70,000 Palestinian migrants or refugees – the line between them is blurry – in Libya when hostilities broke out in February 2011 between supporters of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi and armed rebels trying to oust him from power.
Some Palestinians were specifically targeted – their homes were ransacked and people disappeared – in the rebel capital Benghazi and elsewhere, by both sides in the conflict, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh said. Those working in the civil service or studying at military colleges were seen to be close to the regime.
Gaddafi’s use of Palestinian mercenaries in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the perceived affiliation. Meanwhile, others were targeted because they refused to join pro-regime forces, according to news reports.
While sub-Saharan migrants left the country en masse during the hostilities, and other countries scrambled to get their citizens out, hundreds of Palestinians were unable to flee the violence in Libya – often turned back at the border because Egypt, Tunisia, and their former host countries did not recognize their travel documents, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh said. Many of those who “chose” to stay in Libya, she added, did not really have the choice.
“Where would we go?” asked Fatima, a Palestinian community leader who has lived in Libya for 30 years. “We have no place to go back to.”
After the fall of the capital Tripoli, many Palestinians were evicted by force from their homes, given to them by the former government, Fatima said. Hundreds of others displaced by heavy fighting in the Gaddafi strongholds of Sirte and Bani Walid came to Tripoli and are now homeless, she said. But Libya remained their best option: “We don’t have a country except Palestine, and we can’t go back there… Libya, with its war and difficulties, is still better than the other countries.”
“That notion of choice and the desire to stay in a context that is so insecure is essentially one of being between a rock and a hard place,” said Fiddian-Qasmiyeh.
According to UNHCR, only a few thousand Palestinians in pre-war Libya were registered as refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention. Hundreds of others were offered “complimentary protection” by UNCHR – a recognition that they were stateless, could not be returned, and required humanitarian protection.
Still others came to study through Libyan scholarship programmes.
The vast majority, though, were migrants or skilled labourers who came from Gaza, the West Bank or other Palestinian refugee-hosting countries in the region – Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – with or without a contract and/or regular status. Many have lived in Libya for decades or were born there.
During the conflict, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) helped evacuate 179 Palestinians from dangerous cities to Benghazi, which was more stable. Many of them decided to stay in Libya either because they had relatives there, had found jobs, or had faith the economy would pick up once the situation in the country stabilized, IOM spokesperson Jean-Philippe Chauzy told IRIN.
But others went on to Salloum, a no man’s land along the Libyan-Egyptian border, where they waited to be resettled, he said.
UNHCR assisted 1,581 Palestinians stranded at Salloum to travel to Gaza, through the Rafah border crossing, the agency’s deputy regional representative in Egypt, Elizabeth Tan, told IRIN. Only those with valid travel documentation could cross, she said.
Still, entry into Egypt was difficult, even for those Palestinians who carried ID, due to long-standing restrictive policies towards Palestinian mobility, another humanitarian official said.
Palestinians attempting to leave Libya through Tunisia also faced complications, though they were often resolved once brought to UNHCR’s attention, the official said. More than a dozen of those Palestinians who made it across are currently living in Choucha Camp on the Tunisian side of the border, said Emmanuel Gignac, current UNHCR representative in Libya.
“The options and potential durable solutions available to Palestinians in Libya and the region seem to be very strained, to say the least,” Fiddian-Qasmiyeh wrote in her paper. Here are some of the reasons why:
Refugees versus migrants
Palestinians suffer from “overlapping refugeedoms”, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues. They are refugees to begin with, having fled or been expelled from their land after the birth of Israel in 1948, or in the subsequent war of 1967, settling in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan or Lebanon, before eventually travelling to Libya.
But most Palestinians in Libya are not considered refugees there, as they would be in Syria, Jordan or Lebanon, both because they came as skilled labourers, but also because the Libyan government historically welcomed them as “brothers” – considering them “Arab citizens residing in Libya” rather than as refugees.
So when conflict broke out in 2011, they found themselves in a tricky position.
They could not return to their country of origin (Palestine) nor to their country of habitual residence (for example, Syria) in order to flee the violence and insecurity in Libya. And yet they were not registered as refugees inside the country either.
“Their `voluntary’ presence there problematizes mainstream conceptualizations of ‘refugeehood’,” Fiddian-Qasmiyeh wrote. Even if the vast majority of Palestinians in Libya have not applied for asylum, many of them are de-facto refugees because they meet the definition’s criteria, she said.
Thus, she argues, they should be considered “internally stuck refugees” or “internally displaced refugees” within Libya, and if they are able to get out, as “double refugees”.
She says a more appropriate model is one of overlapping and multiple refugeehoods, where refugees who use their sponsoring agency (e.g. UNHCR or UNRWA – the UN agency tasked with providing assistance, protection and advocacy for registered Palestine refugees) to find jobs or better education are not at risk of losing their refugee label, and the international protection that accompanies it.
But UNHCR says the distinction has little practical importance.
Palestinians who do not register as refugees in Libya would nevertheless receive assistance from UNHCR if they were in need, said Arafat Jamal, deputy representative of UNHCR in Jordan, who led a three-month emergency team in Libya during the hostilities.
“Palestinians remain refugees whether they come here for economic reasons or not,” Gignac told IRIN. “You [only] lose [your refugee status] the day you return home for good or you get integrated and get citizenship from another country.”
Palestinians in Libya were often used as political pawns, with Gaddafi threatening to, or indeed expelling, thousands of Palestinians over the years as a means of protesting against peace initiatives with which he disagreed and drawing attention to the Palestinians’ inability to return to their homeland. In 1995, many Palestinians were forcibly taken to the border, and then stuck in a camp Gaddafi named “The Return Camp” to make his point.
“He would campaign for increased access for a group and then expel them when it was in his interest,” said Emanuela Paoletti, a researcher on migration in Libya and author of The Migration of Power and North-South Inequalities: The Case of Italy and Libya.
Technically, there is no protection gap. If you’re a Palestinian in Libya, you do fall under UNHCR. It shouldn’t be an issue mandate-wise or legal-wise. But in practice, Palestinians being so political and all these sensitivities being around them, if we apply our mandate which includes [certain] solutions, there are issues.Gaddafi’s ad-hoc recruitment of migrants, including Palestinians, into the country, meant that their status was often irregular. Depending on their classification, Palestinians fall under different jurisdictions – UNHCR; UNRWA; IOM; host governments; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO, the recognized representative organization of the Palestinian people) – or none at all, sometimes leaving them without a guarantor.
“Who will give me my rights?” asked Fatima, the Palestinian in Libya.
Evacuated where? And by whom?
“Where Palestinian refugees should, could, or might want to be safely evacuated to, and by whom is a… complex issue,” Fiddian-Qasmiyeh writes. “Can the international community either expect, or indeed responsibly allow, Palestinians to `return’ to Gaza, the refugee camps in Lebanon, or the explosive situation in Syria?”
Despite vulnerability for Palestinians across the region, Arab states have resisted permanent resettlement solutions outside of the Middle East out of a fear that they would jeopardize the Palestinian right to return to their original homeland, putting the collective goal to return at loggerheads with the individual’s best interests of safety.
But resettlement remains an option, current UNHCR representative in Libya Gignac said, albeit a sensitive one. Palestinian refugees in Iraq who tried to flee the violence there after the 2003 US invasion and were refused entry at the Jordanian border were eventually resettled in Brazil after being stranded in the Rweished border camp for years.
“Technically, there is no protection gap,” he said. “If you’re a Palestinian in Libya, you do fall under UNHCR. It shouldn’t be an issue mandate-wise or legal-wise. But in practice, Palestinians being so political and all these sensitivities being around them, if we apply our mandate which includes [certain] solutions, there are issues. They are not always wanted…Palestinians themselves have internalized this notion and feel guilty about integrating in countries because they feel they lose the right of return… that they have somehow betrayed the cause,” Gignac added.
As far as UNHCR is concerned, a refugee never loses the right to return to his or her homeland, even if citizenship in another country is acquired. Still, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh told IRIN the Libyan example shows that theory and practice can diverge, raising many questions about the real options available to Palestinian “refugee-migrants”.
“We do need to take the protection needs seriously. That requires that conversation [about gaps and solutions] takes place.”