Tunisia – Up to 10,000 migrants stranded in Libya will be flown back to their home countries this year, head of the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) Libyan office said.
Othman Belbeisi added however that the returns can only play a limited role in tackling migrant flows toward Europe.
IOM program is one of the few ways EU states can fund action inside Libya, which has become the main migration departure point towards Europe, as the continent struggle to limit migration influx through the Mediterranean.
In addition, other plans were stopped due to poor security, political resistance and a lack of government control in Libya especially that militias and smuggling networks have impunity.
Belbeisi said that the organization’s plan aims to offer a way out to those stuck in Libya without money, work, or a means to move on. This is a voluntary program, he stressed.
“This program provides a window or an option for these people to go back home and start a new life,” he told Reuters.
Belbeisi stressed that it is a contribution to a solution, mainly for the migrants, knowing that the organization does not believe in closing borders, stopping movement or stopping migration.
Some of those who preferred to return have been stopped by the Libyan coastguard at sea and sent to detention centers, while others leave without trying to reach Europe. Most of them do not have documents.
IOM flew 2,775 migrants back to their countries last year. The number is expected to increase this year between 7,000 and 10,000 with the new European funding.
Since the beginning of 2017, 1,795 migrants have already been sent back and another 5,000 are seeking assistance to return.
Belbeisi believes that due to bad conditions inside Libya, the requests are higher than what they were in late 2016.
Most are flown to West Africa, with Nigeria, Senegal and Mali on top of the list. A few have also been returned to East Africa and Bangladesh.
According to Belbeisi, returning can be seen as a failure, which is why the IOM supports reintegration in home communities with half of those returned last year receiving help.
The average cost of returning and assisting a migrant is about 2,000 euros ($2,135) and the program’s funding comes mainly from European states.
The agency still faces challenges interviewing migrants, checking their identity and transporting them across and out of Libya. It plans to raise awareness about the returns program in the coming months, without promoting it.
“We are not promoting a return home because we know sometimes the situation back home can be even worse and we do not want to promote shifting a problem from one side, or country, to another,” added Belbeisi.
That is why IOM does not advertise the program or promote it as a solution for migration to Europe.
Earlier this week, IOM said that most migrants from a ship that had set sail from Libya on Monday and who had been feared dead were said to be alive by a Gambian teenager who was rescued and transported to Italy.
IOM Rome spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo said Thursday that on March 28 the ship of the German CSO “Jugend Retted” rescued 141 migrants, who were attempting to cross the Mediterranean on a rubber dinghy. The migrants were on the same boat as the Gambian boy, who had claimed to be the only survivor.
Giacomo said that their craft began to take on water and sink slowly. Many of those on board had fallen in the water and were trying to stay afloat. The 140 migrants were transferred to Italy.