Libya has returned 161 Nigerians to their country as part of a United Nations-backed voluntary repatriation scheme amid a spike in irregular migration in North Africa.
Reports indicate that the group, about half of whom were women and also included six children, was assisted at an airport in Tripoli by the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) and arrived in Lagos on Monday night.
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Libyan and Nigerian representatives met the people before their departure, which is one of about a dozen transports taking place this year.
Imed Trabelsi, the interior minister of the UN-recognised government based in war-torn Libya’s west, was quoted as telling reporters that “we cannot bear the burden of clandestine migration alone”.
The Nigerians who were repatriated were taken out of prisons across Libya, with the minister saying 102 were intercepted at the border crossing between Libya and Tunisia – where many are headed in the hope that they can reach Europe.
The North African neighbours on August 10 agreed to share responsibility for providing shelter for hundreds of people stranded at their border, potentially signalling an end to a crisis triggered by mass expulsions of refugees by Tunis.
Many refugees had been driven to the desert border by Tunisia last month and abandoned without food, water or shelter after violence erupted in the port city of Sfax and left one Tunisian dead.
Refugees in Tunisia said they were subjected to racist attacks, especially with Tunisian President Kais Saied targeting them in a speech in February in which he said they bring with them “violence, crime, and unacceptable practices”.
Libyan authorities said earlier this month that at least 27 people from sub-Saharan Africa have been found dead after being abandoned in the desert in temperatures over 40 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Tunisia is also being pressured to stop refugees departing from Sfax to Europe as the European Union offers the economically suffering country a prospective 1-billion-euro ($1.1bn) aid package with major allocations for “migration control”.
The voluntary repatriation scheme in Libya has continued with help from the UN for years, having returned tens of thousands stranded in the war-scarred country to their home nations.
Libyan authorities have come under sharp criticism from the United Nations and rights groups over reported violence against refugees.
Samuel Okeri, an official with Nigeria’s embassy in Tripoli, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency that the 161 people were “not forced back” home on Monday.
“They are going back willingly. And as you can see, they are not sad but happy to go back to Nigeria. There is no place like home,” he said.
An estimated 600,000 refugees and migrants live in Libya, which has seen 12 years of stop-start conflict since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that toppled strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
The worst armed clashes in a year broke out in Libya’s capital earlier this month, killing at least 55 people, according to the authorities.