Nigeria has begun evacuating its citizens from Libya following reports of African refugees being auctioned as slaves in the Libyan capital Tripoli, Reuters news agency reported at the weekend.

Abuja commenced flights from Tripoli over the weekend after Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyema said the evacuations would continue until all those who wanted to return home had been able to do so.

“The main objective, and we’re very focused on that objective, is to get these Nigerian citizens back home as quickly as possible,” Reuters quoted Onyema as telling reporters during a visit to Tripoli.

”Our president has made available all the resources necessary to repatriate all the Nigerians here.”

The plan is to fly 5,500 Nigerians out of the country but due to logistical problems on the ground it remains unclear exactly how many will be evacuated.

Nigerians represent the largest national group among African migrants travelling to Libya, which they use as an exit point before attempting the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean to Italy in search of a better life.

The sea journeys, in dilapidated boats run by human traffickers, have led to the deaths of hundreds of Africans despite humanitarian efforts to rescue them.

Last July, Libya’s coastguard and local armed factions began blocking the exit of the migrants by sea, leaving large numbers trapped in the North African country where they regularly face abuse and inhumane conditions.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has in recent months accelerated a “voluntary returns” programme to repatriate migrants from a number of countries. Nigeria now joins Niger in organising bilateral returns.

- African News Agency (ANA)