When the 21 migrants arrived at Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli in May 2019, each was given a bag containing a clean shirt and a pair of trousers.
The group had spent the last eight months in prison in the city of Zwara, 100 kilometres to the west, where conditions had deteriorated.
Approached by staff members of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in prison, they had provided their names and - unwittingly, they claim - agreed to be repatriated back to Asmara, Eritrea, on a commercial flight paid for by the European Union.
But once at the airport, the men changed their minds. At least five of them turned and fled, managing to evade the security forces, who fired their weapons into the air. The remaining 16 were bundled onto the plane in view of UN staff, a number of the men told Euronews.
“IOM told us it was too late, everything had been organised: you have to go back to your country,” one said.
“We had a lot of language barriers, we couldn't communicate,” another said.
The language barriers apparently began long before the flight was due to depart. One of the men told Euronews that all communication with him had been in Arabic and conducted with Libyans. In a statement, an IOM spokesperson told Euronews that “IOM has international staff who speak Tigrinya, Amharic and Swahili.”
The flight to Asmara was just one of hundreds operated under the EU-IOM Joint Initiative, which has assisted the voluntary return of 81,000 African migrants - 50,000 of them from Libya since 2015. Under the programme, African migrants are offered flights back to their home country as well as cash, counselling and reintegration support.
But a Euronews investigation has uncovered massive failings in the programme, funded by the European Union to the tune of €357 million. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) itself admits that only one third of migrants who start the reintegration process actually complete the process. Others suggest the numbers are even lower.
Across seven African nations, Euronews has gathered first-hand accounts from migrants that have returned home on commercial or charter flights paid for by the EU. Most received no support from the IOM once they returned, and even those that did found it insufficient. In some cases, migrants were planning to leave home for the shores of Europe again.
In the case of Eritrea, the situation is compounded by the dire conditions in the East African nation, led by the authoritarian regime of President Isaias Afewerki and described as one of the world’s most repressive nations by Human Rights Watch.
As well as a lack of political and social rights, citizens are forcibly conscripted into the military and suffer abuse and violence.
Any Eritrean who flees the country without completing military service and returns home has to sign a form that reads:
Even after Eritrea’s 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights on Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, told the UN Human Rights Council that there “is no concrete evidence of progress [...] in the human rights situation in the country.
A recent enquiry by the UN found that “returnees are systematically ill-treated to the point of torture during the interrogation phase“ by local authorities. They “are inevitably considered as having left the country unlawfully, and are consequently regarded as serious offenders, but also as ‘traitors’,” it said.
Despite these conditions, the IOM, with European Union support, has facilitated the return of 61 Eritreans to Eritrea from Libya over the past two years.
IOM admitted to Euronews that not only does the organisation have a “limited presence” in Eritrea, but neither it nor the UNHCR have “no access and cannot monitor their situation on return.” As a result, a key element of the voluntary return programme - reintegration assistance once migrants return home - cannot be carried out in Eritrea.
In a statement, the organisation said migrants are “aware of options available to them to exercise their right to seek asylum if they wish to seek international protection instead of returning to their country of origin. If following this joint counselling the individuals decide to return to Eritrea regardless, IOM facilitates their return.”
Indeed, the director-general of the IOM, Antonio Vitorino, brushed off criticism of the voluntary returns to Eritrea by Elizabeth Chyrum, an Eritrean human rights activist based in London, last May after she requested an end to repatriations of Eritreans from Libya.
In a letter sent to Vitorino, she argued that the repatriations were taking advantage of the desperation of Eritreans to escape horrific conditions in Libya, and that Eritreans don’t receive appropriate information about the process.
Vitorino replied to Chyrum that the “programme proves to be a viable option to evacuate stranded migrants out of countries in crisis,” such as Libya.
Once the men flown back to Eritrea from Tripoli reached Asmara, they were immediately arrested and interrogated. One of the men, Theame, said that he received daily calls from officials and was forced to sign a form declaring that he had committed a crime by leaving.
Released from jail, he immediately left the country and is currently registered as a refugee in Ethiopia, where he survives due to cash sent by his brother in Germany.
But for those that escaped that night in Tripoli, life has also been hard. One of the escapees, an unaccompanied child, subsequently crossed the Mediterranean to Italy, and then to France, where Euronews met him in a makeshift camp north of the capital, Paris. He planned to continue his journey until he reached his final goal: the UK.
Commenting on why Eritreans agree to go back to Eritrea despite the conditions, he said: “Many people in Libyan detention centres have lost hope. Those who decide to go back to Eritrea had no alternative.”