13,000 migrants repatriated from Libya, but many returnees face problems

Protesters attend a demonstration against alleged slavery in Libya, at Sergels torg in Stockholm, Sweden, 25 November 2017. [Claudio Bresciani/EPA/EFE]

More than 13,000 migrants have been repatriated from Libya since the beginning of December, the African Union’s chief said yesterday (29 January), nearly two months after reports emerged showing refugees being sold as slaves.

That number is short of the AU’s goal to fly 20,000 out of the conflict-wracked north African nation by mid-January, but chairperson of the AU commission Moussa Faki Mahamat insisted the campaign was on course.

“We have 13,000, and every day, the number increases,” Faki told a press conference after the closing of an AU summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

“I believe that this process is on course, although with a bit of delay. Already more than two thirds… have been repatriated,” he added.

Faki announced the repatriations after media reports emerged in November showing black Africans being sold as slaves in Libya, which has no central government.

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The country collapsed into violent chaos after the 2011 revolt that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muamar Gaddafi, with a myriad of militias and several jihadist groups battling for influence.

Libya has long been a transit hub for migrants seeking a better life in Europe, but people smugglers have stepped up their lucrative business since the revolution.

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Together with the United Nations and European Union, the AU is ferrying the migrants out of Libya on flights organised by individual African countries, Faki said.

Many of those who were repatriated are refugees, Faki added.

Those who cannot go back to their home countries have been offered refuge by Niger and Rwanda.

The plight of returnees

The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported about the return of migrants to Gambia.

Nearly 2,500 Gambians were flown home by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) last year, most pulled out of prisons in Libya after reports emerged of Africans being sold in slave markets in the lawless country, the UN agency said.

The returnees are a noticeable presence in the nation of 2 million, posing a bigger threat to stability than in other West African countries wrestling with migration, experts said.

“We are not ready to receive all these people,” said Bulli Dibba, permanent secretary of Gambia’s interior ministry.

“We are very much concerned for domestic security,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

In November, a group of newly-returned migrants threw rocks at the IOM offices because they were unhappy with the support they had received, according to IOM spokeswoman Florence Kim.

“The government is already struggling to deal with unemployment,” added Dibba, a veteran Gambian civil servant. “If we have more people coming in, what will we do with them?”

Out of reach

Gambians have accounted for about one in 20 migrants arriving in Italy in recent years, making it the country with the highest number of migrants per capita reaching Europe.

Trying to stem the flow, the European Union is funding job training and youth empowerment programmes across the continent with its 3.2 billion euro ($4 billion) Trust Fund for Africa.

While the fund was created in 2015, most of the programmes in Gambia only started last year, according to the IOM.

“Thank god my life has grown into a plan,” said Saikou Jammeh, who did an EU-funded CCTV installation course after returning, and is now saving money for school.

But many young Gambians are missing out.

Of the 2,435 migrants who returned to Gambia in 2017, only 170 so far have received reintegration packages from the IOM, which consist of funding for education or business start-ups.

The agency has received complaints, and is striving to avoid tensions and divisions within communities, said Kim of the IOM.

Give one former migrant more money than their peers and you create competition, she said. Offer returnees more support than their neighbours and it could spur others to leave for Europe.

Many of the returned migrants are traumatised, illiterate, or live in remote areas – making them difficult to assist.