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Libyan leader defends efforts to improve life in refugee camps

The head of Libya’s internationally backed government on Monday defended efforts to improve life for some 20,000 people held in its refugee camps, after the Austrian president bluntly criticised conditions there.

“We are working within the security and economic constraints that we have to respond to (detainees’) needs,” Fayez al-Sarraj said on a visit to Vienna during which he met with President Alexander Van der Bellen as well as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Speaking alongside Sarraj at a press conference, Van der Bellen said that “the situation in the camps is – to put it mildly – far from satisfactory.”

“My personal opinion is that under these circumstances, refugees shouldn’t be sent there at the moment,” Van der Bellen added.

However, he recognised that Sarraj’s Tripoli-backed Government of National Accord has no control over large swathes of the country.

Libya is regularly criticised by the UN and humanitarian groups over conditions in the camps, which house migrants and refugees  who have tried to make the sea crossing to Europe.

“Of course the situation in the camps is not ideal, there are many problems, many challenges,” Sarraj said.

“But we must bear in mind the number of illegal migrants in Libya – more than 800,000 in the whole country. Not more than 20,000 of them are in the camps,” he said.

“I wish we had a comprehensive approach to dealing with this problem. We’re talking about development for the countries of origin, about them taking back their citizens,” Sarraj added.

Earlier Sarraj met Kurz, whose government has pushed a hard line on immigration since coming to power in December 2017.

Kurz said that Austria had a “fundamental interest” in Libya’s security and development and underlined the importance of fighting both Islamic State jihadists and people traffickers.

He expressed his “deep gratitude” to the Libyan coastguard “who have saved 20,000 people (at sea) and taken them back” to Libya.

In an interview with the Austrian APA agency Sarraj had said European criticism of Libya’s handling of migration policy was “unacceptable”.

“We call on those countries who are concerned about the migrants in the camps to help directly – by taking them into their own countries or to help with sending them back,” he said.

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