By New Year’s Day, UN Migration Agency Expects 19,000 Migrants Will Have Gone Home from Libya

Returnees arrive in Conakry, Guinea. Photo: Lucas Chandellier/IOM

Blinking as they stepped into the sunlight, 301 migrants were escorted from Libya’s detention centers this week 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 months earlier when the migrants left home full of the hope of making a fresh start in Europe.

All the migrants volunteered to be returned home by IOM, rather than face an uncertain future, including lengthy periods in detention with the potential for abuse from traffickers and smugglers in Libya. It is not known how many suffered abuse while in detention or while en route.

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.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, is scaling up efforts to evacuate migrants from Libya and help them reach their home countries under the Voluntary Humanitarian Return Assistance (VHR). In addition to the Nigeria and Guinea flights, on Thursday (28/12), another charter flight carrying 170 returnees landed in Bamako, Mali.

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.

So far in 2017, 18,803 returnees have been assisted under the VHR programme. That number is expected to reach 19,000 migrants by the end of this month. Close to 6,000 migrants have returned to their countries of origin since the evacuation phase started on 28 November.

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, ” said Moussa, 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.

IOM has identified 432,574 migrants in Libya, mainly in the Tripoli, Misrata and Almargeb regions, and estimates the number of migrants to be more than 700,000 and up to 1 million.

For the past year, the return of migrants has been funded by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, The UN’s Central Emergency.

Watch a testimony from Amadou, a returnee from Guinea here.