GENEVA - A group of 153 vulnerable African refugees and asylum seekers were flown out of Libya to Niger this week on a plane chartered by the U.N. refugee agency. This was the first life-saving evacuation from Libya in seven months, after the operation was suspended because of COVID-19.
Among the passengers on Monday’s flight were nationals of Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan, including 16 families and 15 children under age 18. Many of the children were unaccompanied or separated from their parents.
The U.N. refugee agency reports most of the evacuees had been living in the Libyan capital Tripoli. UNHCR spokesman Andre Mahecic says virtually all had been arbitrarily detained and forced to live under appalling conditions for some period of time in one of Libya’s notoriously bad detention centers.
“The resumption of evacuation flights is especially important now, given the volatile situation in Libya, the rapid spread of the coronavirus as well as its health and socio-economic impact on refugees and asylum seekers, who have found it increasingly difficult to support themselves and their families,” Mahecic said.
COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Libya. The World Health Organization reports more than 46,600 cases, including 681 deaths. As a precautionary measure, all passengers were required to test negative prior to departure. The UNHCR says they will remain in quarantine in Niger for two weeks and then will be tested again to make sure they are free of the virus.
Mahecic said more than 3,400 migrants and asylum seekers are held in government-run detention centers in Libya. He told VOA the UNHCR is advocating for their release as many are at risk of serious abuse.
“We also advocate for the release of people who might be held in any other possible facilities. We know that there are many given the volatile and fragmented situation inside Libya, that there are probably many other detention centers that we do not also know of,” Mahecic said.
This is the second evacuation flight this year. The previous one was in February, before the operation was suspended because of COVID-19. The UNHCR has evacuated a total of 501 refugees from Libya this year, including 221 who have been resettled to Europe.
Mahecic said the agency is hoping to help more vulnerable people leave Libya. However, he noted much of this is contingent on finding resettlement places and other durable solutions for refugees and asylum seekers who have fled violence and persecution and cannot go home.