Nearly 9 000 migrants have returned home from Libya through a voluntary programme over the past six months, a spokesperson for the United Nations migration agency said on Monday.

A total of 8 938 people returned to some 30 African and Asian countries in the first half of the year, said programme coordinator Jomaa Ben Hassan in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

The figure does not include people who were evacuated to third countries by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Last month, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said less than 2 000 refugees had been accepted by host countries, out of 25 000 places pledged, and urged countries to speed up the process.

The International Organisation for Migration repatriated nearly 20 000 people in 2017 through its voluntary return programme, a figure the UN agency hopes to increase to 30 000 this year.

The IOM accelerated the pace of departures at the end of last year, after CNN television aired footage of African markets being sold as slaves in Libya.

Abuse of migrants is widespread in Libya, where they have been taken advantage of in the chaos which has reigned since the 2011 ousting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Thousands of people have crossed Libya’s southern border in recent years and travelled onwards to the Mediterranean coast, from where human traffickers operate boats to Europe.

On Sunday the IOM said 10 000 people had been returned to Libyan shores by the country’s coastguard so far this year.

After being intercepted or saved at sea, migrants are often detained in inhumane conditions, at which point many opt for repatriation.

Othman Belbeisi, the IOM’s head of mission in Libya, said people should not automatically be transferred to detention centres, raising concerns of overcrowding and poor living conditions.

More than 1 000 people have died in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to IOM figures, including three babies whose bodies were recovered on Friday.

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