Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

CAIRO (AP) – The United Nations (UN) said on Friday that it has resumed humanitarian evacuation flights for migrants stranded in Libya after authorities suspended them for several months. The announcement comes after a massive crackdown on migrants by Libyan security forces.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement that it had evacuated 127 people to Gambia from the Libyan city of Misrata on Thursday. It said the Gambian migrants were among thousands more who are waiting to go home through the organisation’s voluntary return programme.

Evacuation flights for migrants have operated sporadically amid Libya’s conflict, and been periodically suspended because of fighting. The latest suspension came from the country’s Ministry of Interior on August 8, according to the IOM.

Libya was plunged into turmoil by the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-backed 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The North African nation has since emerged as a popular, if extremely dangerous, route to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East.

Many set out for Italy, packed by traffickers into unseaworthy boats. Earlier this month, Libyan authorities started a massive crackdown against migrants in the western coastal town of Gargaresh, detaining more than 5,000 people over the course of a few days. In response, many turned to a community centre operated by the UN’s refugee agency’s office in nearby Tripoli, camping outside and asking to be evacuated.

On Friday, the UNHCR refugee agency said that there are still 3,000 vulnerable people staying outside its community centre for fear of government raids. The agency said it had suspended the centre’s operations for security reasons but was still able to offer some limited provisions to the migrants there.

It welcomed the resumption of humanitarian flights, but also called on the government to urgently address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees in a “humane and rights-based manner”, especially those who cannot return to their countries of origin.

People protesting in front of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Tripoli, Libya. PHOTO: AP