KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — The first evacuation flight of African refugees and asylum-seekers from wretched Libyan detention centers arrived in Rwanda late Thursday in an unusual new effort to divert and care for people who failed to reach Europe.
The East African nation’s agreement to take in 500 people who have been trapped in chaotic Libya, at risk of rocket attack and rape, has raised questions and concerns. It is not clear how long they might be held in Rwanda and how free they are to leave.
“Refugees who will wish to stay in Rwanda permanently will be given asylum,” Olivier Kayumba, permanent secretary in the ministry of emergency management and refugee affairs, told The Associated Press. Rwandan officials have said the country is not being paid to take them in.
Authorities said the first group of 66 Africans, including women and children, was in a bad state of health and media access to their arrival was restricted.
The Rwanda option emerged after various European Union-funded efforts to stem the flow of migrants trying to reach Europe via sometimes deadly journeys across the Mediterranean Sea, although the volume is decreasing. The U.N. migration agency has said more than 45,500 people have arrived in Europe by sea this year, a 30% drop from 2018.
A larger evacuation center run by the U.N. in the West African nation of Niger along a major migrant route north is now dangerously overcrowded, as is the U.N.-run center for about 1,000 migrants and refugees in Libya’s capital, Tripoli.
European countries have been at odds over how to handle the steady flow of economic migrants and asylum seekers, and they have faced criticism from some activist groups over the ad hoc approach and the low number of people they accept. Just a fraction of the some 2,900 people who have been evacuated to the center in Niger have found spots in Europe or elsewhere.
At least 6,000 migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and other nations are still locked in dozens of detention facilities in Libya run by militias accused of torture and other abuses. Some of the migrants have been intercepted on the Mediterranean by Libya’s EU-funded coast guard, which itself has been the focus of abuse allegations.
Some of the detention centers are close to fighting between Libya’s armed groups, and in July at least 44 people were killed by an airstrike on one center near Tripoli.
Rwanda offers a holding option far from the well-traveled migrant route.
Its government agreed to take in refugees and asylum-seekers who agreed to leave Libya under a deal signed with the U.N. and African Union. Most of those set to arrive are from the Horn of Africa, a turbulent region that includes Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many migrants from those countries also try a separate but perilous route to rich Gulf nations, with some dying at sea off the coast of conflict-torn Yemen.
Those arriving in Rwanda will be housed in a center constructed 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside the capital, Kigali. They will be free to come and go from the center, Babar Beloch, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, has said.
There are hopes Rwanda will be able to take in more than the initial 500 people, he added.
The refugee agency “urges the international community to support this transit center here in Rwanda but also to come forward with similar routes to safety so that we can get people out of harm’s way in Libya,” spokesman Charlie Yaxley said in a statement.
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