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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

UN evacuates refugees to Italy from Libya for first time 

Those evacuated came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen

A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 illegal immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli, on June 27, 2017. Taha Jawashi / AFP
A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 illegal immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli, on June 27, 2017. Taha Jawashi / AFP

The United Nations began bringing African refugees to Italy from Libya on Friday, evacuating them from detention centres where conditions have been condemned by humanitarian groups as inhumane.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have fled conflict or poverty at home and are now trapped in Libya, where they had hoped to pay people smugglers for passage to Europe via Italy.

It is the first time the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Libya has evacuated refugees directly to Europe. An Italian C-130 military plane landed at an airport south the capital carrying 110 women and children, and a second flight was expected to bring more than 50 people later in the day.

The African migrants, including many small children, were covered in blankets or bundled in coats as they left the plane on a chilly evening.

"We really hope other countries will follow the same path," Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, said after the first plane arrived.

"Some of those evacuated suffered tremendously and were held captive in inhumane conditions while in Libya. Five of these women gave birth while in detention, with only the very limited medical assistance," Mr Cochetel said.

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The UNHCR estimates about 18,000 people are being held in detention centres for immigrants that are controlled by the Tripoli government and it aims to evacuate as many as 10,000 next year.

Italy's Catholic Church will house many of the new arrivals in shelters across the country, Church charity Caritas said, as the migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen go through the country's asylum request process.

Migrant arrivals to Italy have fallen by two thirds since July compared to the same period last year after officials working for the UN-backed government in Tripoli persuaded human smugglers in the city of Sabratha to stop boats leaving.

Italy is also bolstering the Libyan coast guard's ability to turn back boats.

Italy's move to open a safe corridor for some of the migrants follows criticism by rights groups that have condemned the country's efforts to block refugees in Libya in exchange for aid, training and equipment to fight smuggling.

"This should be a point of pride for Italians," interior minister Marco Minniti said on the tarmac. "This is the just beginning. We will continue to try to open this humanitarian corridor."

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Read more:

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Migrant smuggling has flourished since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, with more than 600,000 making the perilous journey across the central Mediterranean in four years.

Tens of thousands of migrants are estimated to be detained by smugglers, and the African Union says that as many as 700,000 migrants are in Libya. The UNHCR has registered more than 44,000 as refugees and asylum seekers.

The UNHCR classifies Friday's arrivals as "vulnerable" refugees, which means they are children, victims of abuse, women, the elderly or have disabilities.