Rwanda agreed Tuesday to take in hundreds and potentially thousands of African refugees and asylum-seekers stranded in Libya, a deal the African Union hopes to replicate with other member states.
“We will be receiving the initial number of 500 in a few weeks,” Hope Tumukunde Gasatura, Rwanda’s ambassador to the AU, told a news conference after signing a memorandum of understanding alongside representatives of the AU and the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
The first group “is principally made up of people originating from the Horn of Africa,” the AU and the UN said in a 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.
Germaine Kamayirese, the Rwandan minister for emergency management, told journalists in Kigali that “some may be given permission to remain in Rwanda”.
In the chaos that followed the fall and killing of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 uprising, Libya became a key transit point for sub-Saharan African migrants seeking to embark on dangerous journeys to Europe.
The UN says some 42,000 refugees are currently in Libya.
“We have been desperately searching for solutions for those people,” said Cosmas Chanda, UNHCR’s representative to the AU at the 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 to prevent the country from becoming overwhelmed.
“Fewer countries around the world are more than prepared to admit refugees,” Chanda said.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame first offered to take in Africans stuck in Libya back in November 2017, the same month a CNN report showed what appeared to be a slave market there.
The issue took on new urgency in July when more than 40 people were killed in an air strike on a migrant detention centre in the Libyan town of Tajoura.
The UN has been criticised for its handling of a transit mechanism for evacuees from Libya established in 2017 on the other side of the continent, in Niger.
The facilities there have struggled with overcrowding and the slow pace of resettlement.
Rwandan and UN officials “have learned from the Niger experience and we have fine-tuned the procedure,” Chanda said.
But he said the process would still be “very lengthy”.
Tumukunde Gasatura, 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 that other African countries will offer similar assistance, though Elfadil said so far none have been forthcoming.