DAKAR - An emergency plan to evacuate refugees from dangerous prisons in Libya has stalled because European countries are taking too long to resettle them, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has flown more than 1,000 refugees from Libya, where many face rape and torture, to Niger since November to have their resettlement claims processed.
But the flights stopped last week because only 25 of those flown to Niger have so far been resettled in France, while the rest wait in the capital Niamey for European countries to accept and transfer them, it said.
“We received an official request from the government of Niger asking us, for the time being, to hold any further evacuations until people depart,” Karmen Sakhr, head of UNHCR’s North Africa unit, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“You can very well understand that the government (of Niger) has its concerns. They see people coming but not leaving.”
Niger’s interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
About 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered by UNHCR are in Libya, the main crossing point from Africa to Europe.
It is hard to resettle refugees directly from Libya partly because most countries closed their embassies in Tripoli after fighting escalated there in 2014.
Many are trapped in smuggling networks or detention centers where they are exposed to a range of abuses, including rape and torture, that have been widely documented by rights groups.
Niger agreed to host the refugees temporarily so that they could be brought to safety. Most of those flown to Niger are Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somalian, UNHCR said.
More than a quarter are unaccompanied children, for whom host countries have pledged insufficient places, it added.
Almost 2,300 places have been offered for refugees coming from Niger but the speed of the resettlement process is “out of UNHCR’s control,” Sakhr said.
France and Switzerland have sent delegations to interview refugees in Niamey, and some have been approved for resettlement but are awaiting security checks, she said.
As the operation stalls, people continue to suffer under horrendous conditions, said Richard Skretteberg, an adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“What is going on inside the camps in Libya is so bad that something must be done. They should speed up the process,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
UNHCR has also flown thousands of Africans home from Libya since last year.