* 12,000 Middle Eastern, North African refugees at risk
* Libya says U.N. refugee presence on its soil illegal
(Updates with Libya foreign ministry statement in para 6)
By Jonathan Lynn
GENEVA, June 8 (Reuters) - Libya has ordered the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR to close its operations there, putting the future of more than 12,000 refugees and asylum seekers at risk, a UNHCR spokeswoman said on Tuesday. The expulsion has taken on added gravity because of the Italian policy of pushing back refugees who are fleeing North Africa and the Middle East out of Italian waters into Libya, UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
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.
“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 news briefing.
Fleming said Libya had informed the UNHCR last week that it must go, but gave no deadline or reason for the decision.
Libya’s Foreign Ministry said later 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.
It said in a statement carried by state news agency Jana that it had allowed the appointment of a representative since 2001 to resolve a specific issue but he had since “carried out some unlawful activities”. It did not specify what these were.
Libya has been opening up to the United States and Europe, but the UNHCR move is a sign of the unpredictability of Muammar Gaddafi’s government.
The UNHCR has registered about 9,000 refugees in Libya, and there are 3,700 asylum seekers, Fleming said.
The biggest 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.
Most of the refugees and asylum seekers live in urban areas but some are confined in 15 detention centres, to which the UNHCR had access, she said.
Libya’s pivotal role for refugees in the area was highlighted on Sunday, when the UNHCR received a distress call from a boat carrying 20 people, mainly Eritreans, near Malta, Fleming said.
People on the boat, including three women and an 8-year-old, said the dinghy was losing air and in danger of sinking.
The call was passed to the Italian and Maltese authorities but they relied on Libyan vessels to conduct the rescue, which did not take place until late on Monday, in Maltese search and rescue waters some 40 nautical miles from Italy.
“All European governments considering using Libya as a place where people fleeing from war and persecution could be received would have to review this very carefully if UNHCR is no longer present there,” Fleming said.
The agency has been working in the North African country since 1991 and has 26 staff in Libya, mostly local.
“They made it very clear they want us to leave so we’re complying,” she said. (Editing by Myra MacDonald)