The UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) has evacuated some 130 migrants from Libyan government detention facilities, the first such evacuation to take place in 2019. Taken to Niger, the UN said migrants had been detained in dire conditions for months.
"Those evacuated today exemplify once again the urgency of ending detention of refugees and migrants in Libya," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean. "Until that happens, evacuations will remain quite literally a lifeline."
The migrants are currently being hosted at UNHCR's Emergency Transit Mechanism in Niamey until they can be resettled. "The efforts of resettlement countries in coming forward with offers of places for those trapped in Libya are crucial," said the UN. "However, with more resettlement places needed, and many more in Libya requiring urgent evacuation, UNHCR appeals to resettlement countries to speed their procedures for further places to become available."
The UN has received a total of 39,698 places for vulnerable refugees in the 15 countries along the Central Mediterranean route, after calling for 40,000 to be made available. It has evacuated 3,016 people from turmoil-riven Libya since December 2017.
However, figures revealed on Monday by President Fayez Al-Sarraj estimated that around 800,000 illegal migrants are still in Libya, 20,000 of whom are held in government detention centres.
The Libyan authorities have been accused of numerous human rights abuses against migrants, with a UN report last month stating that those in the county faced "unimaginable horrors". Based on interviews with some 1,300 people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa who have arrived in Libya since 2017, the report documented thousands of cases of abuse, trafficking, forced labour and extrajudicial executions.
Those who are detained by government forces often find themselves being held in notorious detention camps, where they regularly face rape and torture. Kept there indefinitely and deprived of food, their passports and mobile phones, dozens die in custody, while others have no means of escape.
In October, a group of Nigerian migrants was able to reveal the conditions in one of the camps after sending a rare video to a citizen journalists' initiative. "We have told them that we want to go back to Africa but they refuse to deport us," says one man in the video that was shared on WhatsApp and other social media. "We are suffering here, we are dying here… they are keeping us here for business." The migrants, who were held in the coastal city of Zawiya, were released after pleading for the Nigerian government to help them.
Despite the threat of violence and expulsion, for many migrants Libya is a necessary transit point to recover their strength and to save enough money before attempting to continue their journey towards Europe.
The Libyan Coastguard has been patrolling the Mediterranean Sea since striking a deal with Italy in February 2017 that empowered the North African state to take migrants back, even though they are at risk of torture and abuse there, in violation of international law.