Thousands of African migrants facing rape, torture and extortion in Libyan detention centres are abandoning hopes of reaching Europe and instead queueing up to take charter flights back home under a scheme set up by the United Nations.

Nearly 10,000 migrants have accepted the offer of repatriation flights from Libya this year, outstripping expectations, partly because coastguard patrols have made it more difficult to cross the Mediterranean.

“We are targeting flights home for up to 12,000 migrants this year, after only about 2,000 last year,” Federico Soda, of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN agency, said.

About one million illegal migrants are believed to be in Libya, which was a magnet for foreign workers before the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011.

Many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa travel to the country in the hope of getting a boat to Europe but they are often seized by militia and put in detention camps where they are beaten, starved and tortured until they ask relatives to send funds for their release. Of those who made it on to boats in an attempt to reach Italy, about 2,700 drowned this year.

After gaining access to camps, the IOM’s staff organised flights to 29 countries, with five planned this week. Nigeria is the most popular destination, with more than 4,000 migrants taking up the offer to fly there. In total about 5,000 migrants have also received funding for work once they get home.

Quentino, who gave only his first name, from Guinea-Bissau, accepted a flight after three failed attempts to sail to Europe. He has now set up a tailoring business that employs other migrants who have returned home. “I think it’s good I came back,” he said. “If I had tried again, maybe I would have died.”

Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for IOM, said: “It’s a dignified return since many get a small grant and by the time they have gone through their travels they are a lot more entrepreneurial and often ready to set up businesses.”

Another migrant, Debbie, flew back to Nigeria to set up a clothing company after she was locked up in Libya with her twin baby sons, one of whom died. “I met lots of Nigerians in Libya who said it was not easy to come and not easy to leave,” she said.

Mr Doyle dismissed criticism that his agency was sending migrants back home to poverty instead of focusing on allowing them to reach Europe.

“These people are grabbed off the bus by criminal gangs in Libya and often thrown into detention and tortured,” he said. “But that is just the start. There’s a ghastly food chain of exploitation which will continue even if they make it to Europe,” he added, citing the thousands of migrants working for very low wages on Italian farms.

“No one is blaming them for travelling, but we want it to be safe and secure and not run by criminal gangs,” he said.


This news article was first published by The Times here