At least 28 Gambian migrants stranded in Libyan jails have been freed and repatriated to the West African country, officials say.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has warned that Gambians detained in jails, some of which are operated by militiamen were at risk of death if not rescued.
Some of the returnees, who arrived in Banjul on Monday evening included a Senegalese citizen and a Guinean, who were held in the troubled North African nation.
The Gambia’s government and the Europe Union has been cooperating to help repatriate its citizens, who wish to voluntarily return with the help of the IOM.
More than 380 Gambians have so far been repatriated since April and the UN Refugee Agency said the number of Gambian arrivals has declined since the defeat of the country’s strongman, Yahya Jammeh.
At least one Gambian has died in one of the detention centers in western Libya, according to members of an associated that monitor the welfare of Gambian migrants.
European leaders are counting on the Italian effort in Libya to shut down the last major corridor to the continent for migrants, largely ending a massive influx that began in 2014.
An agreement struck last year with Turkey helped close the eastern migrant route to the continent via Greece, with Italians seeking a way to do the same in the central Mediterranean.
As more refugees reach Italy, describing Libya as “hell,” Europe must ensure its actions and funds are not contributing to these abuses, rights groups say.
Migrants who had recently arrived from Libya decried what seemed to be no end to the cruelty they had endured at the hands of ruthless smugglers, detention center staff, members of the Libyan coast guard and criminal gangs.
Many said they had been held for weeks or months in warehouses by smugglers who beat and tortured them and fed them only an occasional piece of bread or a small handful of pasta.
Others said they had been detained in appalling conditions in detention centers where food was similarly scarce and beatings were common.
Women and girls are subjected to sexual abuse at all stages of the journey to Europe: in official detention centers, traveling through the Sahara desert and at the hands of people smugglers.
The European Union has been giving handouts to the Gambia’s government. So far, more than $75 million has been given to the West African state to help its economy rise from decades of isolation and stagnation.
Gambian migrants to Europe are often seeking economic opportunities and the EU, which on Tuesday gave the Gambia an additional $36 million hopes its renewed support to the country will curb the migration crisis stemming from the poverty-stricken state.
(Reporting and Writing by Sam Phatey; Additional Reporting from News Agencies; Editing by Sainey Marenah)