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Libya Expels UN Refugee Agency

The United Nations refugee agency says the Libyan government has ordered it to leave the country. The UNHCR says the government sent a note telling the agency to close its offices. It says Libyan authorities have given no reason for the expulsion order.

The UN refugee agency says it regrets the Libyan decision, especially since it has a great deal of work to do to protect and assist refugees and asylum seekers in the country.

UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, says the agency is puzzled by the decision and is trying to negotiate to remain in Libya. She says she hopes the expulsion order is only temporary.

She says there will be serious consequences for refugees and asylum seekers if the UNHCR leaves. She says Libya has no procedure for registering refugees.

"UNHCR is the asylum system in Libya," said Fleming. "And, this will leave a huge vacuum for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who are there already and, of course, those who continue to arrive steadily on boats every week."

Thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa pass through Libya on their way to Europe each year. Many migrants and asylum seekers go by boat to Italy.

Fleming says the UNHCR opposes Italy's policy of sending people who land on their shores back to Libya.

"We have already been critical about so-called push backs to Libya," she said. "And I think all European governments considering using Libya as a place where people fleeing from war and persecution could be received, would have to review this very carefully, if UNHCR is no longer present there."

The UN refugee agency has been in Libya since 1991. It has 26 staff members. Most are Libyan nationals.

Fleming says it is not clear how many asylum seekers are in the country. However, she says the agency has registered about 9,000 refugees. Most of them are Palestinians, followed in number by Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans.

She says most of the approximately 3,700 asylum seekers are from Eritrea.