ROME – Italy organized a first airlift of refugees from Libyan detention centers to Rome after coming under international criticism for helping the Libyan coast guard block migrants from leaving by boat.
The Interior Ministry said the refugees were due to arrive later Friday at Rome’s Pratica di Mare military base. Interior Minister Marco Minniti and the head of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, were to welcome them.
The U.N. refugee agency’s Libya representative, Roberto Mignone, tweeted that he was traveling with 162 “vulnerable” refugees. Italy said the women, children and elderly people were all entitled to international protection. It did not say what countries they came from.
Italy and the EU have come under criticism from human rights groups for helping the Libyan coast guard more effectively patrol its coasts to prevent smugglers from operating. The groups say the policy has condemned refugees to torture, abuse and other inhuman treatment at the hands of militias who control lawless Libya’s detention centers.
Italy has defended the policy, saying it has helped save lives and reduced by 33 percent the number of migrants who arrived in Italy this year.
As of Friday, Italy had taken in some 118,914 migrants, compared to the record 179,769 who arrived in 2016. The International Organization of Migration recorded more than 3,100 deaths among migrants making the Mediterranean crossing in 2017, but the actual number is likely higher since an unknown number of boats sink without rescue crews ever knowing.
The airlift organized by the Italian government follows the “humanitarian corridors” initiated by the Sant’Egidio Community and other Christian churches that have already brought about 1,000 people to Italy, most from refugee camps in Lebanon.
In addition to the Italian airlift, African nations have begun repatriating their citizens from Libya.
The United Nations has vowed to close the government-controlled detention centers in Libya to prevent the migrants from being trafficked and enslaved.