Nigeria has begun to pull out thousands of citizens from Libya following reports that Libyan smugglers and authorities have forced hundreds of them into slavery.
“The main objective, and we’re very focused on that objective, is to get these Nigerian citizens back home as quickly as possible,” Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyema told reporters in Libya, reports Reuters.
”Our president has made available all the resources necessary to repatriate all the Nigerians here,” he added. “We have two planes arriving today and God willing we are hoping to evacuate anything up to 800 Nigerians today.”
The foreign minister revealed that Nigeria intends to pull out an estimated 5,500 migrants, adding that the total number of Nigerians in Libya is unknown.
“Some of the difficulties with getting precise numbers is that some are within the control of the central government in camps, some are clearly outside the camps, some are also in less accessible areas where there might not be full central government control and authority,” declared Onyema.
Armed groups and coast guard personnel in Libya are reportedly preventing many of Nigerians from leaving.
The foreign minister acknowledged that evacuating the Nigerians will be difficult given the criminals involved in smuggling and trafficking them.
Libyan criminals “also [have] an interest that a number of them should not be repatriated, because these represent economic assets for them.”
The United Nations (U.N.) and various news outlets have learned from survivors that many migrants from West Africa are being bought and auctioned off at public “slave markets” in Libya.
Echoing the U.N., the BBC recently reported that Nigerian migrants trying to reach Europe are sold, leased, and used as slaves in Libya where they are beaten, starved, raped, and even killed by prison guards.
“He beat me with an iron bar,” Mac Agheyere told the BBC, referring to a business owner who used him as a slave. “They took barbed wire and tied my hands and my feet and threw me inside a car and took me back to prison.”
A Nigerian migrant told the BBC that Libyans are selling Africans as slaves for about $735.
“Nigerians have recently been the largest national group among African migrants traveling to Libya and trying to cross from there to Italy by sea,” notes Reuters.
In recent months, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) has moved to speed up a “voluntary returns” program intended to repatriate migrants from various of countries.