Wrapped in a white headscarf and keeping her six-year-old son close, Eritrean asylum seeker Tsega waited to board a flight out of Libya to safety after a three-and-a-half-year ordeal during which she was held captive by smugglers and separated from her husband, before spending more than two years in a detention centre in the capital Tripoli.
Tsega, 28, and her son were finally released from detention just a week ago and are among a group of 79 asylum seekers flown to Rwanda by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on Thursday. Such evacuation flights via the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ERT) in Rwanda had been on hold for nearly a year due to COVID-19-related border closures and movement restrictions.
As she waited in the UNHCR Serraj registration centre in Tripoli where the evacuees were given documentation, bags and snacks before boarding buses to the airport, Tsega allowed herself to believe that the horror of the past few years was finally behind them.
“Thank God that what has happened in the past is over. Things were very difficult, I faced many problems, and am very happy to have made it this far having gone through all of that,” Tsega said.
“Life in Libya is very hard, and it is not easy for people like us to survive.”
After she became separated from her husband, he managed to escape from the smugglers that were holding them before crossing the Mediterranean to Europe and reaching Belgium, where she hopes one day she and her son will be able to rejoin him.
“I wish that in the future I can reunite with my husband and have a quiet life, a better life for our son and a better future,” Tsega said. “I wish governments around the world can help people who are suffering here. Life in Libya is very difficult, we get kidnapped, they sell us and others buy us; we don’t feel fully safe because we don't know what we might face at anytime while we are here.”
The group of evacuees that left Libya on Thursday included men, women and children from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, many who had previously been held in detention and some – like Tsega – for years.
On arrival in Rwanda, they were taken to a transit facility in Gashora, some 60 kilometres south of the capital Kigali, where UNHCR provides assistance including shelter, food, water, medical care, psycho-social support and language courses.
The group will stay there while solutions are sought for them such as resettlement, voluntary return to countries of previous asylum or to countries of origin where it is safe to do so, or integration with local Rwandan communities.
While UNHCR welcomes the resumption of life-saving evacuation flights for those trapped inside Libya, the number of places available remains insufficient. UNHCR called on more countries to take part and offer increased places for the most vulnerable asylum seekers.
“These evacuation flights are a vital lifeline for refugees and asylum seekers trapped in Libya,” UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday. “In the absence of legal pathways, desperate people continue to embark on dangerous journeys by sea, leading to the tragic loss of life.”
Without an increase in legal routes to safety, more of the 45,200 refugees and asylum seekers currently registered with UNHCR in Libya could risk dangerous journeys by sea, in which 114 refugees and migrants drowned or missing in the last week alone
“We suffered a lot. We were hit and tortured. They abduct you and sell you.”
Another of those on board Thursday’s evacuation flight was 21-year-old Somali asylum seeker Fawaz, who arrived in Libya aged just 11 years old. He escaped from smugglers who were holding him for ransom. Later, he unsuccessfully attempted the sea crossing to Europe, after which he was held in Tajoura detention centre until it was shelled last year during the Tripoli conflict.
During his failed sea crossing, Fawaz met his wife Farah, and the couple now have a four-month-old son. He said he hoped their evacuation would mark a change in fortunes, and that their son Adnan would get the opportunities that he had not.
“In the past 10 years we have suffered, but hopefully, after the suffering, we will now have relief,” Fawaz said. “We suffered a lot. We were hit and tortured. They abduct you, and take you to one place then another, and sell you from one person to another.”
“I didn’t have a proper education, but I hope my children will have a better future and get educated.”