The UN refugee agency says it has asked the Libyan government to substantiate allegations that UNHCR representatives in the country have abused their positions. The Libyan authorities expelled the UNHCR from the country earlier this month, a decision that is still under review.
Libya says it has ordered the UN refugee agency to close its office and leave the country because its representatives are guilty of misconduct.
In a statement, the Libyan foreign ministry says it has received several complaints of abuse by the UNHCR representative in the country. It says the representative, who is not named, has acted contrary to the humanitarian activity of the organization.
The foreign ministry accuses the representative of sexually exploiting women in exchange for the granting of refugee status.
UN refugee spokesman, Adrian Edwards, says the UNHCR takes very seriously any accusation against any UNHCR staff member from whatever source. "We have, as you know, a zero tolerance policy for misconduct. We have asked the Libyan government to substantiate these particular claims and if and when we receive these indications, we will be in a position to investigate through our normal procedures,"
Libya has not signed the International Refugee Convention. The foreign ministry says it does not recognize the existence of a UNHCR office on its territory. Therefore, it says any activity undertaken by the office is illegal.
The UNHCR notes it operates in other countries that have not signed the Convention and that many, including Syria and Jordan, are hosting hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers.
The agency has been in Libya since 1991. The government says it has tolerated the UNHCR presence to aid immigrants from Somalia and Eritrea. It calls these people guests and not refugees.
The government says it has told the UNHCR to not open an office, but to conduct its business under the aegis of the UN Development Program
Edwards says the UNHCR has held constructive high-level discussions with Libya this week about its future operations in the country. "Flowing from these discussions, our activities for the existing caseload will resume. Our formal link with the government will be through the UNDP office. At the same time, discussions with the Libyan authorities on future operational arrangements for the UNHCR in Libya are expected to start quite soon," he said.
Thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East pass through Libya on their way to Europe each year.
The UNHCR says Palestinians and Iraqis account for the largest number of refugees and Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqis and Somalis top the list of asylum seekers.
More than 12,600 refugees and asylum seekers currently are in Libya.