Rwanda has agreed to take in hundreds of African refugees and asylum-seekers held in detention centres in Libya under an agreement reached with the UN refugee agency and the African Union.
A first group of 500 people, including children and at-risk youth, predominantly from the Horn of Africa, will be evacuated in the coming weeks, a joint statement on Tuesday.
The sides signed a memorandum of understanding in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to set up a transit mechanism.
“Under the agreement, the government of Rwanda will receive and provide protection to refugees and asylum-seekers who are currently being held in detention centres in Libya,” UNHCR said in the statement.
They will be housed in a transit centre in Rwanda before being resettled elsewhere, unless they agree to return to their home countries if it is safe to do so.
According to the UN, some 4,700 refugees are currently in Libyan custody.
The agreement signed on Tuesday comes after repeated allegations of dire conditions for migrants in Libya’s detention centres, including routine abuse, lack of medical care and insufficient food.
“We have been desperately searching for solutions for those people,” said Cosmas Chanda, UNHCR’s representative to the AU, at a news conference in Addis Ababa, the seat of the pan-African body.
The Rwandan government is prepared to take in as many as 30,000 Africans from Libya, though the plan is for the process to unfold in batches of 500 people to prevent the country from becoming overwhelmed.
“Fewer countries around the world are more than prepared to admit refugees,” Chanda said.
The signing of the agreement is a culmination of a commitment by the Rwandan government in 2017 to host African migrants stranded in North Africa.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame then committed to hosting African migrants following reports that tens of thousands of people from the Horn of Africa, who had failed to connect to Europe, were stranded in Libya and were allegedly “being sold in modern-day slave markets”.
Hope Tumukunde, the Rwandan ambassador, said refugees and asylum-seekers would be housed in facilities that have previously been used for Burundian refugees fleeing that country’s political crisis in 2015.
The AU hailed the deal with Rwanda as an example of African governments stepping up to solve the continent’s problems.
“It is a historical moment because Africans are extending their hands to other Africans,” said Amira Elfadil, the AU’s social affairs commissioner.
“We kept on talking about finding durable solutions. My belief is this is part of the durable solutions.”
Officials hope other African countries will offer similar assistance, though Elfadil said so far none have been forthcoming.
Libya has been a major transit route for refugees from Africa trying to reach Europe by boat since the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 in a NATO-backed uprising.