Rwanda is negotiating with the African Union and its development partners to open its borders to at least 30,000 African migrants who are reportedly trapped in a web of slave trade in Libya.
But officials in Kigali would not comment on reports in the Israeli press that Tel Aviv had offered Kigali money for each African immigrant it would take in.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation Louise Mushikiwabo, however, told The EastAfrican that the decision by Rwanda to take in Libyan immigrants would be determined by the outcome of ongoing negotiations.
“It has just been decided, so the numbers and the means are still in discussion. Rwanda estimates the number to be welcomed at around 30,000. This is not confirmed, though,” she said.
Ms Mushikiwabo said the welcoming of the suffering migrants was inspired by Rwanda’s tragic history — a reference to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that saw over one million Rwandans killed.
“Rwanda, like the rest of the world, was horrified by the tragedy unfolding in Libya, where African men, women and children who were on the road to exile, have been held and turned into slaves. Given Rwanda’s political philosophy and our own history, we cannot remain silent when human beings are being mistreated and auctioned off like cattle,” she said.
Chair of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki, said that Rwanda had also pledged to fund transportation for migrants who want to return to their homelands.
The United Nations estimates around 700,000 migrants in Libya, most of them hoping to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
They include refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, unaccompanied minors, environmental migrants, victims of trafficking and stranded migrants. According to the UNHCR, most of them come from Niger, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan.
The agency said it had noted a worrying number of unaccompanied children — many under the age of six — who also fall prey to slave traders.
The dangerous crossing from Libya to southern Europe has claimed at least 2,000 lives this year, UNHCR statistics show.
Libyan authorities launched an investigation into reported human auction markets in nine locations across the country, where Africans are sold into slavery for about $400 each.
The United Nations Security Council also said it has launched an investigation.
Rwanda is among select countries which have been receiving African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel.
Last week, the Israeli press reported that Tel Aviv had approved a plan to shut down the Holot Detention Centre, where over 1,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, are held. UNHCR termed the proposed closure as a sign of hostility towards African refugees.
Sources claim Israel is offering money and trade deals to both the Rwandan and Ugandan governments as part of the arrangement.
The UNHCR reported that the more than 35,000 African refugees and asylum seekers who make it to Israel have to choose between deportation to third world countries, including Rwanda and Uganda, or imprisonment in Israel.
The Foreign Affairs ministry did not comment on the reports, but talks between Israel and Rwanda were confirmed in 2015, when President Paul Kagame told a press conference that he knew about the deal.
“Rwanda and Israel, yes, I know there has been this discussion and it has been a debate in Israel about these Africans who have migrated to Israel as they do to other European countries. Some of them are either there illegally or with different status,” the president said at the time.
The agreement has however been termed as controversial by the UNHCR due to the opaque nature of the details, and because the refugees are said to be deported against their will.
“Due to the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation it has been difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries,” the organisation said in a statement.
“As party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel has legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection.”
Erika Fitzpatrick, UNHCR Rwanda Associate Reporting Officer, told The EastAfrican that they have requested for information from the government of Rwanda regarding the arrangement with Israel, in order to identify ways in which the agency could support in receiving, protecting and relocating the refugees.
“UNHCR is seriously concerned over Israel’s plan to deport or jail thousands of migrants in the coming months to countries in Africa including Rwanda,” she said.