Libya Teaches Us Need for Coordinated Response to Mass Displacements

12 Feb 2015
  • Andrew Bruce | Regional Director, IOM, Asia-Pacific

Thailand - This prolonged season of change in the Arab world underscores a need for the global community to be prepared for the sort of massive population movements that led to last year’s Libya-Tunisia border crisis, where hundreds of thousands of people were stranded. The crisis was not merely short-term, requiring tents, food, water, latrines and healthcare, but also necessitated a medium-term action, whereby some 220,000 third country nationals were repatriated by land, sea and air.

The majority of those affected had to make an overnight transition from being breadwinners to displaced persons. On their return, they became dependents, sometimes with the added burden of having to repay the debt incurred in order to secure a job overseas. Some are already trying to enter Libya again, escaping the food shortages that continue to affect the Sahel.

The rapid movement of 800,000 foreign workers caught the world off guard. There had been no mass exodus from Egypt or Tunisia. Governments, particularly those in Europe, grappling with a financial crisis, faced significant border management concerns.

The upheaval highlighted the vulnerabilities faced by migrants during conflict and crisis. They can be harassed and targeted by warring parties, they may want to flee but he unable to afford it, or simply not know which way to go; they may not have access to their travel documents, have limited knowledge of local language, or be unable to find their embassy officials, many of whom may have evacuated.

The third Issue in Brief, entitled Asian Labour Migrants and Humanitarian Crises: Lessons from Libya is launched today by IOM and the Migration Policy Institute. In it, the authors, Brian Kelly and Anita Jawudarovna Wadud propose six significant steps the world could take to reduce the vulnerability of migrants.

By taking a pro-migrants stance countries would a) help to avoid the human suffering and diplomatic angst caused by sudden, unpredictable displacements, and b) in the process find migration becomes better organised and – even more – beneficial to their economies, be they source or destination counties. In fact, many of the recommendations listed below come directly from the Fourth Ministerial Consultations of the Labour-sending Countries in Asia (also known as the Colombo Process).

First, Standard Operational Procedures are a must. These facilitate better coordination. And they apply not only to governments but also to companies, many of whom already take a lead role in ensuring workers can get out of danger, and still receive payments they are owed.

The states of the Colombo Process also recommended establishing a formal funding mechanism to ensure a rapid and structured response. This would avoid flash appeals or the risk of operations floundering due to cash flow problems (as almost happened several times to the International Organization for Migration as it was in the midst of a US$ 1 million-dollar-a-day repatriation programme).

An inexpensive yet critical innovation would be the offer of micro-insurance to migrant workers. If employers shut up shop migrants are left with nothing – no income, no way to get home. Micro-insurance could also assist in times of natural disasters, or simply in cases of illness or injury. Of course there are legal implications, but the idea should be explored.

A fourth way of avoiding the sort of panic that led to the human crush on the Tunisian-Libyan border would be to train migrants in contingency planning. Pre-departure orientation is available only to very few migrants. How many would know how to contact their embassy, NGOs or other agencies that could help with information and advice during a crisis? And at the same time, capacity of embassy staff needs building up. Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines, to name but three, have designated labour officials or attaches in their embassies to assist migrants and provide welfare services. This should be replicated.

Finally, countries should develop reintegration plans. While it may be costly to provide jobs to returnees, providing welfare costs more. There may be benefits in being proactive – Bangladeshi officials insisted on registering all returning migrants from Libya, along with their contact details. This proved essential when the country later obtained a World Bank loan to reimburse IOM for transporting them home, with enough extra to give each returnee a one-time cash grant of USD 650.

Many of the major labour-sending countries are members of regional blocs, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as the Colombo Process and the Global Forum on Migration and Development.

These regional associations should consider preparing agreements and MoUs to address the needs of migrant workers in complex crises. Collective and coordinated response between states, organisations and employers will reduce the burden on societies and on migrants themselves.

July 2012

Issue in Brief No. 3 - Asian Labour Migrants and Humanitarian Crises: Lessons from Libya is available for download at