ROME - The U.N. refugee agency has evacuated more than 1,000 highly vulnerable people from Libya in a three-month operation that began last November. The agency hopes to evacuate hundreds more and is searching for more lasting solutions for people who are held in detention centers in Libya, and whose conditions have been described as inhumane.
UNHCR officials say they have been working to evacuate mainly women and children, including single mothers and unaccompanied minors — people who have been held in detention centers in Libya. UNHCR spokesperson in Italy Carlotta Sami says arriving in the country means new hope and a chance at a life without violence or abuse.
“For those that are most vulnerable and in a very difficult situation, the evacuation is a solution. It is a life-saving solution,” said Sami.
They are mainly nationals from Eritrea, South Sudan and Somalia. An agreement has been reached with the Libyan authorities to release hundreds of these refugees who are in situations of extreme hardship.
Among those arriving in Italy on an evacuation flight this month is Amanuel, an Eritrean who fled to Libya. He is a self-taught artist, and is deaf. Speaking to the UNHCR through his cousin, Anouif, he explains how drawing in the camp helped him cope with hardship, as he dreamt of the safety of Europe.
His cousin says Amanuel started drawing when he was seven. As he grew, his work got better.
Anouif explains Amanuel inspired others at the camp in Libya to get through the difficult times.
Because of everything he has been though, his cousin explains, he is accepting. “Why are we victims like that?” he asks.
The two cousins are among the more than 300 refugees who arrived on two recent flights from Tripoli to Rome. Hundreds of others have been airlifted to Niamey in Niger where they were taken to safe houses.
U.N. officials say that in the first six weeks of this year, more than 8,000 have made the risky journey to Europe by sea, often at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers.
“What we have to do is to avoid (that) these people to go and risk their lives in the hands of the smugglers,” said Sami.
The UNHCR provides medical check-ups, food and warm clothes. The refugees are transferred to reception facilities across Italy. They then receive assistance with asylum requests, information on training opportunities, and help in finding a job. But Sami is urging European countries to do much more.
“We asked for 40,000 places in Europe to receive specific vulnerable refugees. ‘Till today we have received pledges for a bit over 13,000. So, we need more places. That is clear!” said Sami.
She says the UNHCR hopes to evacuate at least another 1,000 people this year, but those plans are uncertain. Finding them places is not easy as European nations hesitate to take in any more asylum seekers.
The migrant crisis saw more than a million people, mostly Muslims, enter Europe in one year alone. Public pressure since then has prompted governments in Europe to rethink their migration policies and restrict the numbers of people they accept.
How many people the flights continue to bring to Europe will depend on how many places are made available.