Invisible refugees and/or overlapping refugeedom? Protecting Sahrawis and Palestinians displaced by the 2011 Libyan uprising
This article examines the experiences of two North African and Middle Eastern refugee populations (Sahrawis and Palestinians) affected by the 2011 conflict in Libya who have remained largely invisible to the international community. The challenges that they have faced since the outbreak of violence in February 2011, and the nature of international responses to these challenges, highlight a range of interconnected issues on both conceptual and practical dimensions. After outlining the scale and nature of the internal and international displacement arising from the 2011 conflict, and the history of these refugees’ presence in Libya, the article explores whether Sahrawis and Palestinians can be categorised and conceptualised as ‘refugees’ in Libya, given their ‘voluntary’ migration to the country for educational and/or employment purposes. Drawing on a number of historical examples of protection activities by UNHCR for Sahrawi and Palestinian ‘refugee-migrants’, the article explores the potential applicability of a framework that highlights ‘overlapping refugeedoms’ without negating refugees’ agency. Given that neither population has a ‘country of origin’ or effective diplomatic protection, the article then explores which state and non-state actors could be considered to be responsible for their protection in this conflict situation. Finally, analysing the ‘solutions’ promoted for Sahrawi and Palestinian refugees in this context leads to an assessment of whether such responses can be considered to offer effective protection to these populations. Ultimately, the article examines a range of protection gaps that emerge from these groups’ experiences during the 2011 North African uprisings, arguing in favour of a critical assessment of the protection mechanisms in place to support refugees who ‘voluntarily’ migrate for economic and educational purposes. Such an evaluation is particularly important given policy-makers’ increasing interest in presenting mobility as a ‘fourth durable solution’.