On Monday, 1 January, the UN Migration Agency’s Libya mission chartered its first flight of 2018 under the Voluntary Humanitarian return (VHR) programme, assisting 142 returnees departing from Libya to Gambia.
IOM’s Libya Mission will continue on January 8 chartered flights taking vulnerable migrants detained in Libya back to their homelands, a programme that resulted in 19,370 stranded Third Country Nationals leaving primarily the Tripoli area in 2017.
The UN Migration Agency’s next charter is set for Monday 8 January, when around 180 Nigerian nationals are scheduled to be assisted under VHR to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and commercial hub. That flight will bring to close to 20,000 the number of migrants IOM has escorted home from Libya since the beginning of 2017.
IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) has identified 432,574 migrants in Libya, mainly in the Tripoli, Misrata and Almargeb regions, and estimates the number of migrants to be between 700,000 and one million.
Some 11,074 migrants have gone back to their home countries since IOM scaled up its efforts to facilitate the help for migrants interested in return assistance from Libya following the unrest in Sabratha in the beginning of October. The top four countries of return in 2017 were: Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea Conakry and Mali with a charter to Nigeria on 29 December marking the last VHR movement in 2017.
Blinking as they stepped into the sunlight, 301 migrants were escorted from Libya’s detention centers last month to take what would be the first of a series of flights that would see them safely home in Nigeria and Guinea by day’s end. Thus, ended an odyssey which began over a year ago for some of the migrants who left home full of the hope of making a fresh start in Europe.
Escorted by IOM officials, the migrants left Zwara detention center early Wednesday 27 December, taking small planes between the Libyan cities of Zwara and Misratah. In a highly complex operation, fraught with security issues, the migrants were then flown home via charter flights to Lagos and Conakry.
All the migrants volunteered to be returned home by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, rather than face an uncertain future, including lengthy periods in detention and with the potential for abuse from traffickers and smugglers in Libya. It is not known how many have suffered whilst in Libya.
At the Gbessia International Airport in Conakry, the returnees were welcomed by representatives of the ministries of foreign affairs, youth and youth employment, and social affairs and protection.
Among the Guinean returnees was a young man named Moussa. “Look at this,” he said, showing a bullet scar on his calf. “Someone fired at me while I was running in the desert, because it was impossible for me to be caught, I was running so fast.”
“I came to welcome my friends, my little brothers,” said Kabinet, a returnee who had spent two years in prison in Libya, where he was also subjected to violence.
“I’m a sort of big brother. That’s why I thought it would be good for me to see [the returnees] when they got off the plane,” he explained. “In Libya, I worked under harsh conditions in a factory. We had different dreams, to play football in Europe, to take care of our families. We now hope to open a small cleaning business. There seems to be another desert to cross but we will give it all.”
Upon arrival to Conakry, the returnees received travel kits of toiletries and snacks; the most vulnerable migrants received psychosocial support, as well. All migrants also received a “pocket money” allowance of €50 to cover their immediate needs such as transportation, clothing and housing once they arrived. Each was transported to a local transit center to spend the night (upon request), receiving additional meals in the process.
In the wake of shocking reports about rampant migrant abuse and squalid and overcrowded conditions across multiple detention centers in Libya, talks at the AU-EU Summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire from to 29 to 30 November, led to a major revamping of measures to tackle smuggling and mistreatment of migrants on the central Mediterranean migration route, which has claimed 2,833 migrant lives to drowning this year alone. Leaders from both regions committed to work together to end the inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees in Libya. Another issue discussed at the summit was how to address jointly the root causes of irregular migration.
For the past year, the return of migrants has been funded by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Norway, Finland, The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration – US Department of State (PRM)
*International Office of Migration (IOM)