The UN migration agency says Libya is holding close to 15,000 people in dozens of detention centres across the country.

Migrants are seen in a detention centre in the village of Karareem, around 50 km from Misrata, Libya.
Migrants are seen in a detention centre in the village of Karareem, around 50 km from Misrata, Libya. (AP)

The United Nations plans to try to empty government-controlled detention centers in Libya, holding about 15,000 people as part of a stepped up effort to tackle the smuggling and slavery of migrants, the head of the UN migration agency said on Tuesday.

William Lacy Swing told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which was called by France following video footage of African men being sold at a slave market in Libya, that "all of us feel the pressure that this is an enormous human tragedy, and we can stop it."

He cautioned that emptying the 30 or so government detention centres won't end the problem because the International Organisation for Migration, which he heads, knows that some Libyan militias also have detention centres.

But Swing said it was important to focus on the government centres now "because we will need Libya's help."

Since the ouster and killing of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Swing said the International Organization for Migration has tried to take people out of detention centres in a campaign to "destroy the smugglers' business model" and source of income.

This year, he said, the IOM has taken 13,000 migrants home, 8,000 of them from its centre in Agadez, Niger. This means they did not try to cross the Mediterranean, where 5,000 people died last year and over 3,000 have lost their lives so far this year, he said.

Swing said the plan by IOM and the UN refugee agency to empty the government detention centres will require agreement from the Libyan government and help from the home countries of the migrants, the African Union, the European Union and third countries to take migrants who don't want to be returned home.

He said the Libyan government, AU and EU have been helpful and he believes an EU trust fund that is already helping IOM can be used to meet costs of dealing with the 15,000 migrants.

"It's rather rare in my experience to have all of the elements of a solution come together at the same time," Swing said, and if everyone is willing to help the centres can be emptied "in a very short order."

Swing said IOM broke the story about slave markets in Libya in April, but the video footage gave the issue a global spotlight.

High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told the council that "the scourge of slavery ... is an abomination that can no longer be ignored."

More than 116,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean from north Africa to Italy this year, Grandi said, and many are refugees fleeing conflict and persecution who along with migrants have faced torture, rape, sexual exploitation, slavery and other forms of forced labor.

In response to his call for 40,000 resettlement places along the central Mediterranean routes, he said "we have indications of just 10,500 places — an encouraging but still insufficient number."

Grandi said Libya is "emblematic of the harms and solutions needed," noting that many refugees and migrants are currently being held by smugglers and traffickers "under the protection of well-known militias."

Tackling this problem and bringing perpetrators to justice is "closely linked" to progress on ending Libya's political crisis, he said.

Crisis in Libya

The country fell into chaos after the ouster and killing of Gaddafi and since 2014, the oil-rich country has been split between rival governments and parliaments based in the western and eastern regions, each backed by different militias and tribes.

A UN-brokered deal in December 2015 to create a unity government failed, though talks have been taking place to form an administration to lead the country ahead of elections.

France's UN Ambassador Francois Delatte said "we cannot wait for ... the political (track) to succeed, in order to act in a decisive way against human trafficking in Libya. There is no time to waste."

France is working on "a strong expression" from the Security Council, most likely a resolution that may include new sanctions, he said. And the International Criminal Court, which is already investigating Libya, "is a very important instrument at our disposal."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies