Somali migrants, once stranded in Libya, arrive home in Somalia via an IOM charter flight. Photo: UNSOM Somalia/2018

A Journey from Science to Diplomacy: Rescuing Somali Migrants Stranded in Libya

Somalia - A charter flight organized by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, landed in Somalia in May 2018. When the 150 migrants on board disembarked, many of them took their first step on Somali soil in years. This flight was the final haul of a long and hard journey; it didn't represent the happy ending that most passengers were hoping for when they first left Somalia — they weren't in Europe. But they were home and they were safe.

Accompanying the passengers was Ali Said Faqi, Ambassador for the Somali Government to the European Union (EU), and a major part of the mission to help Somali migrants stranded in Libya return home to their families. While few might have missed the stark media headlines reflecting the abuse African migrants have faced at the hands of smugglers, traffickers and criminal gangs in Libya, Amb. Faqi is one of the few to have travelled to the source of these horrors. 

Amb. Ali Faqi with a returnee from Libya as he travels home to Somalia.

Like most members of the Somali diaspora, who were forced to flee the civil war, Amb. Faqi is very familiar with the agonizing feeling of leaving home. After leaving Somalia in the 1990s, he went to Kenya, Italy and Germany, before finally arriving in the United States in December 1998. He went on to become a prominent scholar in toxicology. His academic resume includes a PhD in toxicology from the University of Leipzig, authorship of more than 100 published scientific papers, two texts book in toxicology and tenures at several academic institutions. 

In June 2013, he received an unexpected call from the Speaker of the Somali Parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari and the former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The two were looking for a nominee for the post of Somali Ambassador to the EU. "I never harboured any political ambitions, but nonetheless contributing to my country’s welfare was always close to my heart," Amb. Faqi said. The decision to accept was easy, and he was made an ambassador by the following day.

Amb. Faqi speaks with a group of Somali migrants in a detention centre in Libya.

His journey to Libya several years later came about through another request from the Somali Government. As the harrowing news stories of Africans being sold as slaves in Libya started emerging last year, President Mohamed Abullahi Farmajo called upon his Ambassador for help. "First, I was only to do a three-day mission to Libya but I ended up staying for 25 days altogether," said Amb. Faqi.

When seeing the conditions in which Somalis were being held in Libya and hearing of their distress, Amb. Faqi knew that he could not return without having done everything in his power to help his compatriots. "The stories I was told were like horror movies – all marked by experiences of hunger, thirst, torture, rape, forced labour and a long list of unimaginable abuses," Amb. Faqi says. 

This was his big chance to pay tribute to the country he loved so dearly – and he certainly rose to the challenge. When he eventually boarded a plane to Libya, he was not alone. Through IOM’s humanitarian voluntary return assistance, 75 Somalis reunited with their families. This attested to the importance of Amb. Faqi's hard work in getting Somali migrants out of Libya’s detention centres and of IOM’s operations to get them home. It was not long before he received a new wave of pledges for support.

IOM staff assist migrants as they are travelling home to Somalia. Photo: UNSOM Somalia

Amb. Faqi has earned international recognition for his hard work, and on 18 May 2018 he was granted the African Leadership Award for Outstanding International Humanitarian Service by the Independent Pan African Youth Parliament. With such a strong commitment to helping stranded Somali migrants, the sky is the limit for what Amb. Faqi can achieve. 

Through this project, 235 Somali migrants have been assisted with voluntary return from Libya since March 2018. This return and reintegration assistance of Somali migrants is part of the larger EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, which facilitates orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration management through the development of rights-based and development-focused policies and processes on protection and sustainable reintegration. The EU-IOM Joint Initiative, backed by the EU Trust Fund, covers and has been set up in close cooperation with a total of 26 African countries.

The reintegration support under the Joint Initiative aims to address returnees’ economic, social and psychosocial needs and foster inclusion of communities of return in reintegration planning and support whenever possible. To address these needs, the programme promotes an integrated  reintegration  approach that  supports  both  migrants  and  their  communities, has  the potential to complement local development and aims to mitigate some of the drivers of irregular migration. The reintegration assistance is tailored to needs and opportunities. The value and duration of the assistance is not fixed and can vary. The programme does not foresee specific one-size-fits-all reintegration packages.