ROME: A group of 162 “vulnerable” refugees have been flown directly from Libya to Italy for the first time, a day hailed as “historic” by Interior Minister Marco Minniti.
“For the first time a humanitarian corridor has been opened from Libya to Europe. It’s a start,” Minniti said.
Those evacuated came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen.
They comprised families, single mothers, unaccompanied children and handicapped people, who were flown on a military jet.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates about 18,000 people are being held in detention centers for immigrants that are controlled by the Tripoli government and it aims to evacuate as many as 10,000 next year.
Vincent Cochetel, the special envoy of UNHCR for the central Mediterranean, said: “For the first time, we have been able to evacuate extremely vulnerable refugees from Libya directly to Italy.
“Many of those evacuated spoke of great suffering and were kept prisoners by traffickers in inhuman conditions.”
Libya has long been a transit hub for migrants seeking a better life in Europe, but people smugglers have stepped up their lucrative business in the chaos since the 2011 revolution.
Libyan authorities have come under fire over migrant abuses since the airing last month of CNN footage of a slave market in the country.
The UN has urgently appealed for countries to take in 1,300 “extremely vulnerable” refugees stranded in Libya.
Italy’s Catholic Church will house many of the new arrivals in shelters across the country, Church charity Caritas said.