Migrants trapped in a detention center in Libya (archive image). Credit: Reuters
Migrants trapped in a detention center in Libya (archive image). Credit: Reuters

The International Organization for Migration's repatriation program for migrants stranded in Libya, which resumed in August after months of hiatus, is drawing thousands of applicants. InfoMigrants reports on the progress and conditions of these so-called voluntary returns.

Since August migrants stranded in Libya can once again apply to be repatriated to their countries of origin with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These return flights, suspended for months because of COVID-19, are now among the few planes allowed in Libyan airspace.

For many people trapped in Libya who are unable to flee the country by land, the flights represent a beacon of hope. Since March 2020, at least 2,300 people have applied to the program. But how do these returns take place and who is eligible for them?

InfoMigrants spoke to Safa Msehli, IOM spokesperson in Libya.

InfoMigrants: Who are the migrants participating in this IOM repatriation program?

Safa Meshli: They are mostly migrants living in Libyan cities. We estimate that they represent 80% of the candidates. They often have their own housing.

Some of them are migrants who have lost their jobs and therefore their livelihoods because of COVID-19. Now that they find themselves without any income, they have decided to return home.

Some participants have also been abused or exploited in the workplace. Others want to return home after trying and failing to reach Europe.

A few came from detention centers. After what they went through, they decided to go home and rebuild their lives there.

IM: What are the criteria for taking part in the program?

SF: The voluntary humanitarian return assistance provided by the IOM is intended for all migrants stranded in Libya who wish to return to their countries of origin. We do not refuse our assistance to anyone and it is free of charge. But take note: we only offer a return to the country of origin, not to a third country.

If a migrant wishes to leave Libya but cannot return to his or her country of origin for security reasons, then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can intervene. The UNHCR has options -- "very limited" according to spokeswoman Caroline Gluck -- available to migrants on a case-by-case basis: flights to evacuate migrants deemed vulnerable to Niger and Rwanda and relocation procedures. However, all these flights have been suspended since March until further notice due to travel restrictions caused by COVID-19.

Participants undergo health and other tests to verify that they are able to travel. Interviews are also conducted to ensure that migrants are entering the process voluntarily and are aware of the procedures.

IM: What happens if a migrant is unable to travel?

SF: It happens, especially when someone is seriously injured. A migrant once applied to the program after being shot in the leg. He had had to receive full treatment in hospital before he left. We can also be confronted with cases of tuberculosis -- a disease that migrants can contract in detention centers -- or people who are traumatized after being assaulted or abused. In these instances, we make sure that the migrants are given the appropriate treatment. While they undergoing treatment, we provide them with accommodation. A medical escort during a trip can also be arranged if necessary.

Generally speaking, we want migrants to be able to reintegrate as well as possible in their countries of origin. We therefore provide psychosocial follow-up, especially for victims of trafficking -- many of them are Nigerian women -- people who have suffered trauma, and those who have spent years in detention. Participants who require further support can receive a comprehensive psychosocial follow-up that continues after their return.

IM: How do you help them once they are in their home countries?

SF: First of all, we collaborate with NGOs and government agencies in the field so that the monitoring does not stop once the trip is over.

We also help them directly in different ways: we can, for example, support them in starting a small business or in resuming their studies. It is not necessarily about giving them money. Helping them find a place for their future business can also be part of our support.

To contact the IOM, call +218 91 00 11 491. If no one answers, you can leave a message in the language of your choice, giving your name, nationality and a telephone number where the IOM team can call you back.


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