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UN Agency Criticizes Libya Over Eritrean Asylum Seekers - 2004-09-21

The U.N. refugee agency has criticized the Libyan government for the forcible deportation of more than 70 Eritrean asylum seekers last month. The agency expresses concern over what it calls a pattern of forcible returns.

The U.N. Refugee Agency says it is concerned over the ongoing forcible return of potential refugees from Libya. It says the recent deportation of 75 Eritreans highlights the seriousness of the problem, and indicates the extremes to which asylum seekers will go to avoid being returned home against their will.

On August 27, the Eritreans were put aboard a chartered Libyan air force plane without being told they were being flown to their home country. On route they learned of their destination and four of the Eritreans reportedly hijacked the plane and forced it to land in Sudan.

U.N. refugee agency spokesman, Ron Redmond, says UNHCR staff conducted interviews with 60 of the Eritrean passengers after their arrival in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

"The group said that they had been detained without charges for a prolonged period of time in the Libyan town of Kufra, and had endured repeated physical abuse," said Mr. Redmond. "They also said that, despite their request to see UNHCR, they had not been given access to any asylum procedure. It also raises concerns over the intentions of the Libyan government to ensure minimum standards of treatment for persons who might be in need of international protection."

Mr. Redmond says 60 of the 75 passengers have since been granted refugee status in Sudan. The other 15 reportedly are being held in prison.

Libya has come under mounting European pressure to clamp down on the growing numbers of mainly African illegal immigrants using Libya as a transit route to Europe. A statement issued by the Libyan interior ministry after the hijacking said the authorities had decided to deport the Eritreans to fight against the growing influx of illegal immigrants.

Libya is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. But, Mr. Redmond notes that the Libyan government has certain obligations under the 1969 Organization of African Union Convention related to African refugees, which it signed and ratified.

"Libya figures among the first African states to have signed the OAU Convention and adopted so far a generous open-door policy towards Africans and Arab nationals," he added. " The deportation of potential refugees from Eritrea on 27 August constitutes a severe violation of the OAU Convention and clearly goes against the norms of international protection."

The advocacy group, Human Rights Watch says people returned to Eritrea face imprisonment and torture. It says it has reliable reports that people forcibly returned to Eritrea from Libya have been arrested and are being held incommunicado.

Eritrean officials have told U.N. officials they believe most people who flee the country are trying to avoid military service and should be punished.

The U.N. refugee agency is calling on the Libyan government to take steps to make sure there are no further deportations of potential asylum seekers.