by Abbas Shiblak
Until recently, Libya was considered one of the most liberal countries in the Arab world allowing entry and work to the Palestinians. This led many Palestinians who had lost their residency rights in Palestine due to the Israeli Occupation, or in other Arab host countries due to political or administrative reasons, to emigrate to Libya. However, as recent history has demonstrated, residency in Libya is not as secure as many Palestinians had hoped, and hundreds of Palestinians have been peremptorily expelled by the Libyan regime in the last few years.
Although it is difficult to give a precise figure of Palestinian residents in Libya, the present estimate is about 30,000. This figure, however, may have diminished in the last two years by the departure of some 4,000-5,000 Palestinians in the wake of the blockade imposed on Libya following the Security Council's Resolution in April 1992. Due to the economic repercus¬sions of the boycott, the Libyan regime has expressed its intention to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country and has deported many thousands. However, unlike other foreign laborers who can return to their countries, the Palestinians often have no country to go to. It is worth noting that a significant number of the Palestinians in Libya hold refugee travel documents; they are mostly low-income earners who must struggle to meet the basic needs of their families; they are in Libya solely because no other country will have them.
Today, there are about a quarter of a million Palestinians who have no right of residency in any country, or a land in which to seek refuge, for two reasons. First, Israel has continuously denied Palestinians who were dis¬placed by the 1967 war, or who were out of the country at that time, the right of return. Second, some of the Arab host countries have attempted to reduce the number of Palestinians in their country by changing the condi¬tions for the right to residency.
Since 1994, the Libyan regime has been declaring its intention to expel Palestinians as, what it claimed, an expression of its dissatisfaction with the peace agreement concluded between the Palestinians and Israel.
In September 1994, the Libyan authorities refused entry to hundreds of Palestinians who had been spending their summer vacation with their families in the OPT. Many were subsequently turned away at both the Egyptian-Libyan and the Israeli-Egyptian borders. The Egyptians would not allow these Palestinians to cross without proof that they would be allowed into Libya. As a result, tens of families had to spend three to four weeks stranded on the borders before Libya allowed them to return.
In a speech on September I, 1995, Qaddafi declared his intention to expel all Palestinians from Libya. This he reiterated on September 4, in a speech given at Saloum on the Egyptian-Libyan border. Subsequently, thousands of Palestinians were put on ships and trucks and sent into an unknown future.
On October 27, 1995, after Arab and international intervention, Qaddafi announced he would allow Palestinians to stay in Libya for a period of three to six months. In the interim, he said, it was the Palestinian leader¬ship's responsibility to find a destination for these people once that period was up. Hence, those stranded Palestinians who were eventually allowed back were given no assurances that this inhuman and traumatic experience would not recur.
Lebanon Closes the Gates
At the end of August, even before Qaddafi's official announcement, hun¬dreds of Palestinians, along with a few Arab nationals, were put on ships and sent to Lebanon and Syria. Initially, Lebanon permitted 400 passengers with valid Lebanese travel documents to enter the country and sent back the others who had no such documents, or whose documents had expired. However, once they realized the magnitude of the expulsion, the Lebanese authorities closed their ports to any ship carrying Palestinians expelled from Libya, as well as the naval lines linking the two countries.
Inspired by the sensitive political bal¬ance in Lebanon, there were reports of greatly inflated num¬bers of Palestinians
en route to Lebanon. This led the Lebanese government, on September 11, to adopt new measures denying all Palestinians entry into Lebanon unless they were able to acquire a visa, in advance, from a Lebanese embassy. Hundreds of Palestinians, who carried valid Lebanese travel documents but who happened to be out of the country at the time, found themselves stranded in airports and border crossings unable to reach their families or residence in Lebanon. Among these were children which had been on a school trip to France and the women's delegation to the International Women's Conference in Beijing.
These measures alarmed Palestinians in Lebanon, especially those in camps, for they felt this was an attempt by the Lebanese government to exploit the expulsion from Libya to reduce the number of Palestinians living in Lebanon.
Lost at Sea, Lost in the Desert
After Lebanon denied them entry, hundreds of Palestinians found them¬selves stranded at sea for weeks. Those who were on the ship "Contessa M" headed to Syria were forced to remain at sea for two weeks before Syria finally allowed them in. Some had Syrian passports, 508 were Palestinians carrying Syrian travel documents and the rest were other Arab nationals. Palestinians on other ships spent days of agony and hardship shuttling between Syrian, Cypriot and Lebanese ports, which were all closed to them, before they were allowed back to an uncertain future in Libya.
A number of Palestinian families, packed into dangerously overcrowd¬ed trucks, crossed the desert from Saloum to Nuweiba, the Egyptian port on the western part of the Sinai Peninsula, and then took the ferry to the Jordanian port of Aqaba on the Red Sea. The journey was more than 2,000 km and was made in the hot summer season, without any supply of basic necessities. The majority of these refugees were Gazans or West Bankers who carried special Jordanian passports, valid for two years, giv¬ing the holder no right to automatic residence. Until recently, it was not clear what value the Jordanian authorities gave these special Jordanian passports, considered only travel documents. However, all holders of such passports were eventually allowed into Jordan. A group of 177 reached Aqaba by the end of September and thus, to the OPT through Allenby Bridge. At least 20, holding Egyptian travel documents, were forced to make the long journey back to Saloum in Libya.
Those who reached Aqaba were totally exhausted and traumatized by their journey. They had their first bath in three weeks. During their journey, they had not been able to find adequate medical attention for their children who were suffering from diarrhea and other illnesses. Among the group were university students in their final year who were being prevented from grad¬uating by the expulsion. As one woman said, "We have spent the most diffi¬cult time in our life ... we made tents out of our clothes to protect our children. We lived in conditions fit for animals and we were treated like animals."
The 'Camp of Shame' at Saloum
During the last week in August, waves of Palestinians began arriving at the crossing point of Saloum. The largest group arrived just before Qaddafi's speech on September 4, 1995. During the third week of October 1995, the number of refugees at Saloum peaked at around 600, despite earlier reports that it exceeded 1,000. The population of the camp was always changing, as those who had valid residency documents for Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank continued their journey east across the desert.
Qaddafi referred to the camp at Saloum as "the Camp of Return," but the Palestinians prefer to call it "the Camp of Shame." Although the camp is located by the main road in the no man's land between Egypt and Libya, it is under Libyan jurisdiction. The land upon which the camp is located is rocky with a thin layer of sand. There is no water and the lack of vegetative cover means that the camp is totally exposed to the elements. During the summer season, the temperatures go down to five degrees centigrade at night. The camp is 200m by 250m and is enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. The area out¬side this enclosure reportedly has a high density of mines planted there dur ing the Egyptian-Libyan hostilities between 1975-1980, and a large population of snakes and scorpions. There are no permanent structures on the site.
An inter-agency mission, including the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres), UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and WHO (World Health Organization), which visited the site on October 30, 1995, found that the conditions of the camp were inhumane and inadequate for even a limited stay. Up until the end of the mission's stay, there was no food shortage. The Libyan authorities, then, were giving the refugees a daily cooked meal, while the UNHCR, aided by international donors, provided tents, rice, lentils, cheese and other items. However, the mission noted that, if the Libyans stopped providing cooked food, a problem would arise, especial¬ly since the Egyptian authorities had decided not to allow any further con¬voys of relief items to cross from their side of the border. Two days after the mission finished their report, the Libyans ceased to provide the refugees with food and the danger of malnutrition and even starvation grew. Drinking water was supplied by the UNHCR in the form of bottled water, but there was urgent need for water for washing and personal hygiene. All water provided from outside the area of the camp needed to be transported by cars and stored at the site. There were logistical problems, however, regarding the installation of adequate equipment for the storage of water, and given the site's topography, there were also difficulties in the con¬struction of adequate latrines on the site.
Almost daily, our sensibilities are shocked by scenes of Palestinians, a large number of whom are women, children, and the elderly, stranded in air¬ports, border crossings and even on ships. In a region that has recently embarked on a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, how is it possible to ignore the stark contradiction between these tragic scenes and the much-vaunted peace process?
It is unacceptable that Palestinians be prevented from returning to their country in which they were born and where their families had lived for generations simply because they are not Jews. Neither is it acceptable that the Palestinians must queue at the gates of neighboring Arab countries, beg¬ging for entry, or that they remain victims of political exploitation and of nar¬row and selfish interests of some governments in the Arab host countries.
There is an urgent need to put an end to this human tragedy of the dis¬placed Palestinians who have no refuge in any Arab country, to ensure their return to their homeland and to find resources to facilitate their repa¬triation in Palestine.