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Interview. We spoke with Federico Soda, Mediterranean coordination office director for the International Organization for Migration, about the plan to repatriate thousands of migrants living in squalid prisons in Libya.

IOM: ‘Hundreds of thousands’ need assistance in Libya

The summit in Abidjan ended with the commitment made by the European Union, the African Union and the U.N. to empty the Libyan detention centers by repatriating the migrants who are being held captive. This task will be accomplished by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which in 2016 facilitated the return of 2,775 immigrants from Libya to their countries of origin. “This year, we have already done more than 13,600 repatriations, and I think we will reach 16-17,000 by the end of December,” says Federico Soda, director of the IOM’s Office of Coordination for the Mediterranean.

Repatriations are already being accomplished, so what is actually new in the plan announced in Abidjan?

The novelty lies not in the plan itself, but in the political will that developed following CNN’s report on migrants being sold as slaves. We have been denouncing that state of affairs ever since April, but the impact of those images finally led to a reaction by some international bodies, including the African Union. We at the IOM are able to transfer around 3-4,000 people per month. If we get more resources, either from the Libyan government or from the African countries, we will be able to free many more migrants from a situation like that in the detention centers, not only unacceptable and dangerous, but one to which these people often have no alternative, since many cannot escape, as they don’t have either the papers or the financial means to do it.

What about the Eritreans and Somalians?

For them, just like for anyone else who has a valid reason to apply for international protection, UNHCR has a mandate, and they are trying to build a center in Tripoli where they can make an initial assessment of asylum applications and then move people to a safe country before finding a safe third country to relocate them.

There has been talk of a task force being formed by the E.U., the African Union and the U.N. What tasks will it have?

It will be a political task force, which will try to open more facilities in Libya to be able to operate. But the details remain to be decided.

Do you need more money to organize the repatriations?

Money will be needed. It is not an immediate need, but it will be soon. Now we are organizing four flights per week, but we could easily do as many as one per day. But there are some obstacles to be overcome in dealing with the Libyan authorities, and this also includes access to all the detention centers. It’s a similar situation with planes. The reason why we have only a few flights per week is strictly operational, and it concerns the Tripoli airport, where we need to land larger planes.

How many migrants are we talking about? I’m asking because you only have access to the government’s centers, which are only 30, but there are also those run by the militias.

We estimate that in the centers run by the Libyan Ministry of Internal Affairs there are between 15,000 and 18,000 migrants. Then there are those we don’t know anything about, because they are held at locations that are not monitored, such as houses or other privately owned locations. We think that overall there might be between 700,000-800,000 foreigners in Libya, maybe even more. But it must be pointed out that not all are in danger or suffering, and not all intend to get to Europe. But certainly, the people who need assistance number in the many hundreds of thousands.

Given these facts, isn’t the announcement of the intention to empty the centers likely to be mere propaganda?

I don’t think so. The program is not limited to 20-25,000 people. Let’s not forget that in 2011 we evacuated around 250,000 people from Libya, almost all to Bangladesh and the Philippines.

But they were not prisoners, like they are today.

That is true. Obviously, within a failed state without government structures, as Libya is today, the situation is completely different. But I don’t consider it mere propaganda, because we are helping thousands of people improve their living conditions. The point is that when there is someone who is suffering and needs help, numbers become in a certain sense irrelevant. If you manage to help 10 or 100 people, of course helping 100 is better — but in the end, those 10 have received the assistance they absolutely needed. The numbers are propaganda for the Europeans, who are fixated on how many landings there are every day, and neglecting the really important issues.

UNHCR is talking about 50,000 refugees that are to be relocated to Europe. Is it a realistic figure, given the difficult attitude on display in many European states?

At the moment, the conditions don’t exist to be able to accomplish this in Europe. The 50,000 that UNHCR is talking about is our goal, but unfortunately most states are not open to this, and we are still very, very far from reaching such numbers.

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