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The migrants at the Kigali airport waiting for entry procedures /Photo: UNHCR

First batch of refugees stranded in Libya arrive in Rwanda

Rwanda has welcomed 66 refugees from other African nations, who had been stuck under dangerous conditions in Libya. The African country is expected relocate thousands of people stranded in Libya under a new program. However, there are already questions about the future of the program. Sertan Sanderson/InfoMigrant reports.

Rwanda signed an agreement with the African Union (AU) and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in early September to take in vulnerable African refugees stranded in Libya.

The government in Kigali said it is prepared to accommodate up to 30,000 evacuees from Libya in the next five years, who are expected to arrive in groups of up to 500 at a time in order to allow for the country with a population of 12 million to adapt to the new reality of being a country of immigrants.

The move followed a pledge by Rwandan President Paul Kagame two years ago offering shelter to African migrants caught up in precarious circumstances in North Africa following mounting media reports of torture, rape and slavery emerging from Libya.

Charlie Yaxley, the global UNHCR spokesman for Africa, shared images on Twitter of the first arrival, highlighting how they are “finally safe and get aid and assistance.”

Among this first batch were unaccompanied minors, single mothers as well as families, according to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency. The youngest passenger arriving in Kigali was a two-month-old girl born to Somali parents in Libya. UNHCR said that this initial group of arrivals hailed from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.

Authorities said that the newcomers were in a bad state of health, as media access was restricted, according to the Associated Press (AP). Once of them had not left a Libyan detention for the past four years, according to reports.

‘Refugees welcome’

A UN officials meanwhile told AFP that following the first arrival, a subsequent flight carrying 125 people was planned to arrive in Kigali about two weeks later.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meanwhile thanked Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the Rwandan people for their initiative.

The UN says that there are more than 42,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently registered with the UNHCR in Libya. 

An ambitious plan

The migrants are due to be housed at the Gashora Refugee Transit Center, located in Bugesera District, approximately 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Kigali before being resettled elsewhere in the country — unless they agree to return to their home countries from there.

Most of those arriving in Rwanda were simply happy to be out of harm’s way: “We thank God. We cannot explain the life back there in Libya. There is fighting and we couldn’t even sleep peacefully at night. Now, we feel safe,” Zainab Yousef, one of the refugees, said.

The transit center was established in 2015 to host Burundian refugees and migrants, about 30,000 of whom have come to Rwanda while fleeing political violence in the neighboring country.

“UNHCR will provide persons evacuated from Libya with shelter, education, food items, basic hygiene products and health care services,” Olivier Kayumba Rugina, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Emergency Management, told AFP.

“After registration and gaining refugee status they will just get refugee IDs like other refugees.”

Remaining questions

There have, however, been questions and concerns about the new scheme as well. AP reported that it is not clear yet how long the refugees might be held in Rwanda and how free they might be to leave. Nor has anything been confirmed yet beyond the arrival of the first 500 persons.

Babar Beloch, a spokesman for UNHR, told AP that the new arrivals will be free to come and go from the center as they wish but there has been no word on this from the Rwandan government so far.

READ ALSO UN to evacuate migrants from Libya to Rwanda

Olivier Kayumba, permanent secretary in Rwanda’s ministry of emergency management and refugee affairs, meanwhile confirmed with AP that “refugees who will wish to stay in Rwanda permanently will be given asylum.”

Rwandan officials have, meanwhile, also stressed that the country is not being paid to take in the refugees. UNHCR said it will invest $10 million this year alone on flying the refugees from Libya to Rwanda and building facilities that will provide basic aid and services.

Solutions for migrants in Libya

In the chaos that followed the fall of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya became a key transit point for sub-Saharan African migrants embarking on dangerous journeys to Europe, especially because of the lack of organized security around the country’s naval borders. Many of them, however, have become permanently stuck there, often suffering grave human rights abuses.

The issue of resettling these refugees and migrants stuck in Libya has been a topic of political debate in both Africa and Europe for the past two years. In its efforts to stem the migrant flow to Europe, the European Union has provided funds to Libya to intercept refugees and migrants on their way to Europe.

However, it is not always clear where exactly those funds go, with increasing reports of human rights abuses in Libya putting the EU’s dealings with the North African nation in a questionable light. African nations meanwhile are also frustrated that their citizens suffer such grave abuse at the hands of people smugglers in Libya who might be involved with local government officials.

For the past two years, there have been numerous reports of sexual violence, forced labor, torture and slavery coming out of Libya. With a civil war in the country putting migrants even at greater risk, leaders on either side of the Mediterranean are now scrambling to find solutions. The problem took on new urgency this summer when more than 40 migrants were killed in an air strike on a notorious migrant detention center in the Libyan town of Tajoura.

Changing face of a region

Rwanda hopes to follow in the footsteps of other Central and East African nations that have been welcoming to migrants and refugees from the continent. Uganda, for example, is host to about 800,000 refugees from war-torn South Sudan while various other countries in the region host hundreds of thousands of refugees from Burundi, Somalia and elsewhere in Africa.

According to the UNHCR, the region hosted over 4 million refugees and migrants at the end of 2018.

with AFP, AP / © InfoMigrant

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