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Over a million people have fled Libya since the February 2011 uprising to oust leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi turned violent. Many of them are foreigners who had taken refuge in Libya from conflict in their own countries, some have returned to their countries of origin, but others remain in a precarious situation as third country refugees – twice displaced from their home countries. Humanitarian agencies say these people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, cannot return to their countries of origin for fear of persecution or violence.

In Libya, anti-Qadhafi forces often accused them of being pro-regime foreign mercenaries, rendering their return to Libya improbable. While the international community must address the situation of both Libyans and non-Libyans displaced by the conflict, the non-Libyans present a particularly difficult challenge, one that humanitarian agencies say must be addressed immediately. Roughly 5,000 non-Libyan refugees and asylum-seekers remain in makeshift camps in Tunisia and Egypt.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), responsible for coordinating international action to protect refugees, faces major difficulties in fulfilling its mandate due in large part to a lack of cooperation by the European Union (EU).

Seven of the twenty-seven EU states, all of which are signatories to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (Convention), pledged 394 spots for the UNHCR’s overall Global Resettlement Solidarity Initiative for refugees from around the world, which has an initial target of resettling 8,000 persons. None of the EU member states have offered additional resettlement places for the 2,397 third country refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing Libya that the UNHCR has designated in need of immediate resettlement. In comparison, Norway alone, a non-EU member, offered 250 spots for refugees from Libya and the United States pledged an open number of places to the UNHCR. Under the Convention, which enshrines the principle of non-refoulement, refugees and asylum-seekers cannot be forcibly returned to their countries of origin, thus the UNHCR and potential host countries have a responsibility to find adequate solutions for their resettlement.

The EU acknowledged its international obligations under the Convention by adopting several instruments to increase its cooperation with the UNHCR in the resettlement of third country refugees within Europe. These measures include the Policy Plan on Asylum and the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, which aim to “meet the protection needs of refugees in third countries and to show solidarity with third countries of first asylum.” Recognizing that within the borderless union, resettlement policies in one nation may impact each member state, the EU created the European Refugee Fund to increase resettlement capacity across Europe. Despite this capacity building, the choice to resettle third country refugees and asylum-seekers remains a sovereign decision made by each European state. Resettlement within Europe lags severely behind other developed signatories to the Convention as well as UNHCR’s needs. In 2010, the United States and Canada resettled 54,077 and 6,732 persons, respectively. Taken together the top five EU countries resettled 4,019 persons.

Generally, countries face several challenges when resettling displaced persons including the financial and social difficulties of integrating refugees and asylum-seekers into an unfamiliar society. The UNHCR recognizes that Europe faces the additional challenges of managing increasingly diverse societies as well as greater migration and mobility, which have “placed a strain on existing social structures” in the EU. However, nations with far-fewer resources, such as Tunisia and Egypt, often bear the burden when developed states shirk the responsibilities. In addition, the Convention specifically states that its provisions shall apply to all refugees regardless of race, religion or country of origin, rendering social cohesion an invalid excuse for refusing to resettle refugees and asylum-seekers.

Europe’s obligation to resettle refugees and asylum-seekers displaced by the Libyan conflict is also a moral one. The EU’s desire to stem illegal migration from Libya caused Europe to turn a blind eye to Qadhafi’s dubious human rights record. Europe sought cooperation with Libya to combat illegal migration, which allowed Libya, a non-signatory to the Convention, to use a heavy hand against refugees and asylum-seekers attempting to flee to the EU. The EU even contributed financially to Libya’s “management of migration flows.” When the uprising against the Qadhafi regime escalated, EU members played a significant role in drafting Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the no fly zone and bombing campaign over Libya to which eleven EU member states contribute. The bombing and increased fighting across the country caused thousands of people to continue to flee to transit camps in Egypt and Tunisia.

Although the Convention does not force signatories to accept displaced persons, the refusal of developed countries to do so hinders the work of UNHCR and the spirit of the Convention. The EU can meet its commitment to increase both its cooperation with UNHCR and to provide “greater and better targeted support to the international protection of refugees through resettlement” by increasing its resettlement of refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing Libya. Further, allowing refugees a legal means to enter the European Union through a formal and efficient registration process could significantly decrease the flow of illegal migrants and asylum-seekers, which has plagued some members of the EU since the conflict in Libya began.