The UN refugee agency plans to open a refugee transit centre in Tripoli early next year to resettle or evacuate up to 5,000 of the most vulnerable refugees out of Libya each year, a senior UN official said.
It is a small fraction of the total Libyan migrant population, estimated at as many as a million, but would be an outlet for the 43,000 refugees the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates are now trapped in Libya.
“We hope to have written authorisation soon,” Roberto Mignone, UNHCR representative in Libya, told Reuters. The UN-backed Tripoli government has approved the project verbally, he said.
The centre, where migrants will be able to come and go as they please, will be in a former immigration police training facility. Once refurbished, it will be able to temporarily accommodate up to 1,000 refugees and could be running by early 2018, Mignone said.
Italy has become the main migrant route to Europe since an agreement between the EU and Turkey shut down smuggling through Greece last year, but arrivals have fallen sharply since July, when an armed group clamped down on departures.
With the backing of the European Union, Italy has financed, trained and equipped the Tripoli-based coast guard. With a national election due early next year, Italy is also promising tens of millions of euros to Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj and municipal governments to stop smuggling.
The strategy has drawn criticism from humanitarian groups pointing to dire conditions inside state detention centres, where Mignone said some 6,000 are held and in the more numerous “camps” where smugglers hold migrants, often extorting them or forcing them to labour for free.
Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said he is depending on the UN refugee and migration agencies to improve conditions for refugees and migrants trapped in Libya.
“We can’t be the only solution,” Mignone said, because Libya remains dangerous and international staff have limited access to the country.
“There are still many risks” for international staff, he said. “A month-and-a-half ago, there was an attack on a UN convoy outside Tripoli with bazookas and machine guns. It was a miracle the worst was avoided.”
Some 1,200 of the most vulnerable refugees — including women, children, the sick or disabled and the elderly — have been released from detention centres at the request of the UNHCR and about 800 more should be let out soon, Mignone said.
While the UNHCR hopes to resettle many, it is a lengthy process. Many countries do not have a permanent diplomatic presence in Tripoli, further complicating matters.
The agency will seek to evacuate most, Mignone said, to emergency transit centres in Romania, Slovakia or even Costa Rica, where they will have time to apply for resettlement. The agency is currently working to open another emergency transit centre in Niger, he said.