Italy accepts 147 refugees flown in from Libya
A group of 147 mainly African refugees, rescued from the Libyan city of Misrata, were flown to an Italian military airport near Rome on Monday for resettlement.
Italy's interior ministry said the group included 68 minors. Babies and toddlers could be seen among those disembarking from the plane at the Pratica di Mare military airport in late afternoon.
"This evacuation is a vital lifeline for people who faced serious threats and dangers inside Libya," said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Italy's populist government in September adopted an anti-migrant decree aimed at streamlining the rules for processing asylum requests by tightening the rules for awarding humanitarian protection.
The controversial bill also made it easier to expel migrants and strip them of Italian citizenship.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, of the far-right League party, said the arriving refugees were fleeing war.
"Italy's ports are largely open to the women and children, to young people who are really fleeing war."
However he stressed that Italy is not open to "the human traffickers" and the kind of often unseaworthy boats which are used in attempts to smuggle people into the country.
The interior ministry said that Monday's arrivals at the military airport included 69 Eritreans, 62 Somalians, six Sudanese, five Syrians and five Ethiopians.
Libya has been mired in chaos since the uprising that deposed and killed dictator Moamer Ghaddafi in 2011.
People smugglers have taken advantage of the lawlessness, ferrying mostly sub-Saharan Africans from Libyan shores to Europe.
Libyan s Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive against Tripoli, the seat of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), on April 4.
Italy is the first country to have stepped forward to receive evacuees from Libya since that recent violence began, the UN refugee agency said in its statement, adding that Monday's evacuation was carried out in collaboration with the Libyan interior ministry.
"It’s now crucial that other States match this gesture and offer similar evacuation places for refugees caught up in the conflict. Turning a blind eye will have real and tragic consequences," said Grandi.
Thousands of refugees and migrants continue to be held in detention centres, "where even prior to the recent clashes they faced dire and squalid conditions," the agency said.
"More than 3,300 people are particularly at risk inside detention centres close to imminent or ongoing clashes," the refugee agency added.