Niger sends Sudanese refugees back to Libya
Niger has deported at least 132 Sudanese asylum seekers to Libya, drawing criticism that it is flouting international law by sending them back to dangerous and inhumane conditions from which they recently escaped.
The deportation comes after more than 1,700 people fled the other way since December, the independent, non-profit media group IRIN reported on Thursday.
The deportation, the first of asylum seekers from Niger’s migrant hub of Agadez, was confirmed by a high-ranking UN refugee agency (UNHCR) official, and later by an informed source at the Nigerien Ministry of Interior Affairs who insisted those sent back were “criminals” fighting for militias in southern Libya.
UNHCR said those deported were part of a group of around 160 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers arrested in Agadez on 2 May. The majority fled to Niger to escape harsh conditions and treatment in Libya and were receiving assistance from UNHCR.
The Sudanese men were deported across the land border into the south of Libya on Wednesday or Thursday, and their current whereabouts are unknown, according to the UNHCR official. Prior to the deportation, UNHCR secured the release of women and children, and several other people escaped.
One of those arrested on May 2 was a 58-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur whom IRIN met during a visit to Agadez in March. They were held for several days without food, he told the news outlet via text message.
On May 7, several large trucks entered the prison. When the Sudanese resisted orders to board the vehicles, the police beat them, according to people who escaped and communicated with IRIN via text message.
The trucks departed in the direction of Madama, a desert outpost close to the Libyan border and some 900 kilometres, or two to three days of gruelling travel, from Agadez, IRIN says.
Human rights advocates expressed alarm at what they said was a violation of non-refoulement, the international law that prohibits states from sending refugees and asylum seekers back to countries where they may be in danger.
The deportations are seen as setting a worrying precedent for hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who are increasingly trapped in Libya with no route of exit to safety, IRIN states.
Agadez is a major transit hub for migrants travelling from West Africa to Libya en route to Europe. But since last December, more than 1,700 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers have fled from Libya to Niger, according to the latest UNHCR figures. This is a significant reversal of the trend of people travelling north from east and west Africa to the Libyan coast, to cross the sea and seek protection in Europe.
Clandestine migration is criminalised in Libya, and people who enter the country illegally are routinely detained for indefinite periods and suffer abuse from authorities and smugglers.
Many of the Sudanese “fell prey to human traffickers and ended up in slavery situations – being forced to work, beaten, not paid,” explained Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean.
The arrests on May 2 were precipitated by strained relations between the local community in Agadez and the Sudanese, according to news reports and the UNHCR source.
Nigeriens in the neighbourhood where the Sudanese were being housed by UNHCR expressed frustration over public sanitation issues and fear over the proximity of Sudanese men to Nigerien women and girls.
UNHCR has entered mediations with local authorities and residents to reduce tensions and prevent further deportations.
When IRIN met the 58-year-old Darfuri in March, he said he was hoping to find somewhere to stay where he wouldn’t have to face the same problems and difficulties he endured in Darfur and Libya. “Anywhere [UNHCR] says I can go, I’ll go – except for Libya or Sudan,” he said.
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