Groundbreaking first evacuation of 162 vulnerable refugees from Libya to Italy

First evacuation flight organized by UNHCR and Italian authorities lands at Rome's Pratica di Mare military airport.

Mounira, a 20-year-old Somali with her son Mubarak, shortly after being evacuated with others from Libya to Italy  © UNHCR/Alessandro Penso

ROME, Italy – A first group of 162 refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen has arrived safely in Italy from Libya, in a landmark operation putting an end to months of detention and suffering.

The group – which included families, single mothers, unaccompanied children and disabled people – was evacuated on Friday (December 22) in two Italian military aircraft. All of them are in need of health care and counselling after being held captive in inhumane and degrading conditions and undergoing abuse from traffickers, smugglers and others on hazardous journeys across Africa.

“This is really groundbreaking.”

“For the first time, we have been able to evacuate vulnerable refugees straight from Libya to Italy. This is really groundbreaking and a much welcome development that could not have happened without the strong commitment of the Italian authorities and the support of the Libyan Government,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation.

“We really hope other countries will follow the same path,” Cochetel added.


One of the evacuees, Timnit – a 25-year-old Eritrean – was almost overcome with emotion and relief.

“I didn’t believe it when UNHCR told me that I was coming to Italy,” she said. “I still cannot believe it now that I am here.”

Timnit had been trying to join her husband in Germany for nearly two years. Alone in Libya, she was detained on several occasions for long periods. She sits in a wheelchair with a thick blanket around her legs, as she explains she can no longer walk on her own due to the pain.

“My pain is psychological, my legs hurt more when I am angry,” she said.

In an attempt to end her suffering, 10 days ago Timnit made the risky attempt to cross the Mediterranean with smugglers.

Her travel companions carried her on their backs to the boat, but after three hours it was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and all 100 passengers were brought back to Libya and detained.

Timnit, a 25-year-old Eritrean refugee, sits on a wheelchair unable to move due to the pain in her legs, shortly after being evacuated from Libya to Italy.  © UNHCR/Alessandro Penso

“I haven’t spoken to my husband since attempting to cross by boat. When I call him and tell him UNHCR has taken me to Italy by plane, he’s never going to believe me,” she smiled.

The group was accompanied from detention facilities by Libya-based UNHCR staff and then flown to Italy on two separate aircraft to the military base near Rome. UNHCR has welcomed the evacuations as a new mechanism to deal with people in need of resettlement in Libya, where many countries do not have embassies and dealing the complex mgiration issues is particularly challenging.

Upon arrival, all refugees went through medical checks and were given warm clothes and a hot meal before undergoing identification procedures. UNHCR staff and CARITAS volunteers welcomed the refugees and provided them with information upon arrival.

The refugees will now be transferred to several reception facilities where accommodation and assistance will be provided by the Episcopal Conference of Italy through Caritas.

Shawki, 19, fled Ta’izz in Yemen because of war.

“The situation at home was terrible, but Libya is worse than Yemen because you are not scared only of the fighting, you are scared of people coming to kidnap you and asking for ransom. Anything can happen to you. My friend and I paid US$5,000 just to be freed,” he explained.

“The number of refugees evacuated from Libya is expected to reach 400.”

Shawki entered Libya through Egypt to where he had flown.

“I tried to get a visa to enter Europe, but it wasn’t possible. That’s when I decided to come by sea," he added.

The number of refugees evacuated from Libya is expected to reach 400 with a third evacuation from Libya to Niger in the coming days.

“This has only been made possible after intensive efforts from our staff and partner organizations. The smile of relief on the faces of those evacuated is a source of additional motivation to save more. We really count on international solidarity to help us reach our objective of bringing to protection 1,300 highly vulnerable refugees out of Libya as soon as possible.” added Cochetel.