Sasha Chanoff

What about refugees fleeing Libya?

By Sasha Chanoff
March 24, 2011

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THE UN Refugee Agency has made an emergency appeal to governments to increase resettlement slots for refugees impacted by violence in Libya. Twenty-four countries — including the United States — have active resettlement programs through which refugees with no other options for dignified survival are allowed to permanently relocate and rebuild their lives. They should respond to the UN plea.

The term “refugee’’ is used loosely to describe Libya’s mass exodus, referring to migrant workers, foreigners, and others who are escaping the violence and who can return to their own countries. The more specific and accurate definition for a refugee is someone who has fled conflict or persecution and cannot return home based on an ongoing fear of persecution and violence.

There are approximately 10,000 refugees from Darfur, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, and other war-torn countries residing in Tripoli and other cities in Libya. They fled terror in their own countries and sought safety in Libya, only to now find the country at war. Moreover, Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy has brought in mercenary soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa to help him hold on to power. Those revolting against the despot are mistaking African refugees for Khadafy’s mercenaries and attacking and killing them, according to the UN.

Abdul Khedir, a 21-year-old Somali interviewed recently at the Tunisian border, said he had fled from Tripoli after his wife and infant son were killed. He said eyewitnesses had told him about other sub-Saharan Africans killed in the Libyan capital. “They were attacking all of us — they thought we were working for Khadafy,’’ the UN reported him saying. Refugees from Darfur and Eritrea have also reportedly been killed.

Others are fleeing and are part of the more than 230,000 people who have fled into Egypt and Tunisia since mid-February. Those fleeing to Egypt will join over 40,000 refugees already residing there, primarily in Cairo. The scant humanitarian resources that exist will quickly be consumed, leaving the most vulnerable to struggle for survival on life’s barest edge. Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee have documented human rights abuses and extreme suffering of refugees in Africa’s urban cities.

The injustice to people who have already fled genocide and persecution once and now are at such risk again is palpable. Equally worrisome is the concern that an overwhelmed Egypt or Tunisia could close borders, just as Kenya has closed its border with Somalia at times and left people to suffer and languish in the wasteland of their own country.

This is where the UN Refugee Agency’s appeal comes in. Lives will be saved if the United States and other countries resettle those refugees fleeing Libya. Beyond this vitally important step, such a show of international burden-sharing will encourage Libya’s neighbors to keep their borders open for those who are fleeing. Collectively, if governments around the world could make available approximately 10,000 emergency resettlement slots, people would be allowed to escape the violence and the humanitarian community would be able to better serve those refugees in Egypt and Tunisia. Essentially, resettlement can be used as leverage to maintain and build a better human rights environment for all those impacted by the conflict in Libya.

When we see a dictator gun down his people in order to maintain power we ask ourselves, what can we do? Last year our government celebrated the 30th anniversary of the US Refugee Resettlement Program, which has shown visionary leadership in taking in refugees fleeing violence and genocide from around the world. These people rebuild their lives and become productive tax-paying citizens who help to stimulate the economy with their entrepreneurship and work ethic. If the United States opens more emergency slots, other governments will be encouraged to follow suit. This will save lives and show solidarity with Egypt and Tunisia, whose emergence from largely bloodless revolutions deserves our support.

Sasha Chanoff is the executive director of Mapendo International, a humanitarian agency.