* Seeking agreement on lifting closure order
* Helps 12,000 Middle Eastern, North African refugees
* Libya says U.N. refugee presence on its soil illegal
GENEVA, June 9 (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Wednesday it wants to talk with Libya about resuming work in the country after the authorities last week told the agency it must cease operations.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry late on Tuesday said the presence of an UNHCR office in the capital Tripoli was illegal and accused the agency of unlawful activities.
“We are seeking open, constructive dialogue with Libya to dispel any misunderstandings which we hope would lead to consensus to resume our work,” spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
The Geneva-based agency, headed by High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, would be making no further comment at this stage, she added.
Reporting the Libyan expulsion order, not yet enforced, on Tuesday, Fleming said it had special gravity because of Italy’s policy of sending people fleeing North Africa and the Middle East by sea out of Italian into Libyan waters.
Libya has not signed the 1951 convention on refugees and does not have a domestic asylum system so the UNHCR has been helping the authorities determine whether people arriving are refugees or other migrants, she told a briefing. There are estimated to be more than 12,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
“This will leave a huge vacuum for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who are there already and of course those who continue to arrive steadily on boats every week,” Fleming told a Tuesday news briefing.
The UNHCR says Libya has given it no deadline or reason for the closure decision.
In its Tuesday statement, the Libyan Foreign Ministry said it had repeatedly told U.N. representatives that Tripoli saw the U.N. refugee office presence as illegal since it is not bound by a convention with the United Nations.
Libya has been opening up to the United States and Europe, but the move against the UNHCR is a sign of the unpredictability of Muammar Gaddafi’s government, diplomats in Geneva said.
The UNHCR says it has registered about 9,000 refugees in Libya, and that there are 3,700 asylum seekers. The largest group of refugees are Palestinians, with people from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Liberia and Ethiopia making up the rest. The biggest group of asylum seekers are from Eritrea.
The UNCHR provides healthcare, shelter, education and training to refugees as well as legal advice on how to move from Libya to a country where they can settle permanently.
The agency has been working in the North African country since 1991 and has 26 staff there, mostly local.
European countries argue that many of the people involved are economic migrants rather than political refugees. (Reporting by Robert Evans; Editing by Matthew Jones)