NIAMEY – Rahel*, a 29-year-old Eritrean refugee, was hoping for a new life of freedom and opportunity in Europe when she took the dangerous overland route across Africa. Instead, she found herself detained 11 of the 18 months she spent in Libya.
“When UNHCR told me I was leaving Libya I wasn’t sure what to think, I didn’t believe them at first. Then when the bus came to fetch from the detention centre I understood it was true… I was happy to be alive,” she told representatives of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Niger.
Rahel was one of 74 Eritrean and Somali refugees, deemed particularly vulnerable, to arrive on a UNHCR-organized flight at Niamey International airport in the early hours of last Friday morning. The group, which included 51 children and 22 women, had been in detention facilities in Libya until just hours before boarding the plane.
“God had sent UNHCR to save our lives.”
“God had sent UNHCR to save our lives,” added a relieved Rahel, who was sold three times by people traffickers during a journey through hell.
UNHCR staff welcomed and assisted the exhausted refugees through airport controls before transferring them to guesthouses. Many asked for reassurance that they would not be taken back to Libya.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, started the life-saving emergency evacuations in November this year, as part of a broader effort to address the complex movement of migrants and refugees along the Mediterranean routes.
“Niger is a transit situation for them. They will be welcomed, they will be supported and they will be given hope that life is still possible” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s representative in Niger.
“UNHCR would like to thank the government of Niger for opening the doors of its country and allowing UNHCR to continue the humanitarian evacuation flights from Libya.” she added.
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation, added: “This evacuation could not have happened without the support of the authorities and of our partners, including MOAS, in Libya. I also want to praise the extraordinary solidarity demonstrated by the people and by the Government of Niger.”
UNHCR has appealed for an additional 1,300 resettlement places to evacuate vulnerable refugees from Libya as many are detained in deplorable conditions for indefinite periods of time, victims of serious violations of human rights.
Hamda, a 25-year-old Somali refugee, said she was arrested in Libya when she was one month pregnant.
Rahel, who was also beaten, was sold three times by smugglers who demanded she pay US$5,500 to be released.
She cries as she tells us that she was caught by a group of men in Zuwara, a port city in northwestern Libya: “I did not see their faces, I know they were from Daesh. They raped me, all of them did, I do not know how many they were."
The refugees are currently receiving medical and psychosocial support.
There are nearly 550,000 persons of concern to UNHCR in Libya, including 200,000 internally displaced people and 44,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers.
*Name has been changed for protection reasons.