By James Tasamba
KIGALI, Rwanda (AA) - The first batch of African refugees and asylum seekers evacuated from Libyan detention centers arrived late Thursday in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.
The evacuation came weeks after the Rwandan government signed a memorandum of understanding with the African Union and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) committing to establish an emergency transit mechanism in Rwanda for African refugees and asylum seekers.
“This [first] group comprises 66 people, including children and youth at risk. More refugees and asylum seekers from detention camps in Libya are expected in the coming weeks,” the Rwandan government said in a tweet.
Upon their arrival at Kigali International Airport, the group was welcomed by UNHCR staff and Rwandan authorities before being driven to a transit center in Rwanda’s Bugesera district.
“The youngest passenger on the flight to Rwanda is Hadia, or ‘gift’ in Arabic -- a two-month-old little Somali girl born at the gathering and departure facility [in Tripoli]. Tomorrow, she will wake up in a safe place in Rwanda together with her two young parents. We wish them a bright future,” the UN refugee agency said.
It added that many unaccompanied minors, single mothers and families are part of the first group hoping to enjoy safety and security after years of struggle.
The hosting agreement was signed on Sept.10 at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.
Under the agreement, 500 African refugees registered by the UNHCR and others identified as particularly vulnerable and at risk, who are currently being held in detention centers in Libya, will be evacuated to Rwanda on a voluntary basis.
The mechanism is to serve as a temporary safe pathway while durable solutions are being sought.
Evacuation flights are to be carried out in cooperation with Rwandan and Libyan authorities, according to the agreement.
The African Union is to provide assistance with evacuations, mobilize resources and provide strategic political support and coordination.
The UNHCR has evacuated more than 4,400 persons of concern out of Libya to other countries since 2017, including 2,900 through the emergency transit mechanism in Niger and 425 to European countries through the Emergency Transit Centre in Romania.
However, some 4,700 persons of concern are currently estimated to be held in dire conditions inside detention centers in Libya, said the UN agency.
The evacuation is the culmination of a commitment made by the Rwandan government in 2017 to host African immigrants 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 being sold and bought in slave markets in modern-day slavery.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) had said that the trade in human beings seemed to have been normalized with people being traded in public.
“The latest reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages [in Libya],” said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s head of operations and emergencies.
“The situation is dire. The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for all too many migrants.”
Libya has been a major transit route for refugees from Africa trying to reach Europe by boat. But following the overthrow of the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the country slid into violence, with reports indicating that migrants with little cash and usually undocumented were vulnerable.