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Thousands of African Migrants Detained in Libya to be Repatriated

FILE - A migrant holds his head as he stands in a packed room at the Tariq Al-Matar detention center on the outskirts of the Libyan capital Tripoli, Nov. 27, 2017.

An airlift is under way to repatriate some 15,000 African migrants, who are being held in abusive detention conditions in Libya. The International Organization for Migration says it expects to complete the operation before the end of the year.

The repatriation operation was triggered by recent reports of rampant migrant abuse in Libya, including slave auctions by criminal gangs. The IOM has begun scaling up its voluntary humanitarian return program in the wake of an African Union-European Union initiative to tackle the problem.

This year, the IOM has brought more than 14,000 mainly sub-Saharan migrants back to their home countries. The current operation will more than double the number of migrants who will have been voluntarily repatriated by year's end. Most come from Nigeria, Guinea, Gambia, Mali and Senegal.

Migrants signing up for the program are desperate to return home, according to IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle.

"A senior colleague of ours was in a detention center on Monday of this week with some senior EU delegations. There were about 1,000 people crammed into the space pleading, begging, shouting to be taken home," he said.

Doyle tells VOA the migrants to be flown home are in government-administered detention centers in and around Tripoli. They account for only a small portion of the migrants being detained throughout Libya.

"There are many, many, many other detention centers run by criminal gangs — dreadful hovels, torture — which we do not have access to and that is what is leading to the reports and allegations of slave auctions. It is away from the government centers," he said.

The IOM has registered more than 400,000 migrants in Libya, though the actual number thought to be in the country is estimated at 700,000 to one million.