African refugees and asylum seekers who have been stranded in Libya for over three years will soon be voluntarily relocated to Rwanda.
On Tuesday, Rwanda, the African Union, and UNHCR signed an agreement in Addis Ababa, establishing the “Emergency Transit Mechanism” for 500 refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Libya.
The agreement is expected to serve as a temporary safe pathway to Rwanda while permanent solutions are being sought, according to Germaine Kamayirese, Rwanda’s Minister for Emergency Management.
Under the agreement, Rwanda will receive and provide protection to refugees and asylum-seekers, “in a few weeks,” as well as those identified as vulnerable and at-risk, who are detained in Libya.
The EastAfrican spoke to some of the refugees, and they said their dream is to eventually be granted asylum in Europe since they have no intention of ever returning to their countries, citing political and economic turmoil.
“Going to Rwanda is better than staying in Libya. I do not know much about Rwanda but I think it is better. We also do not know the next step after Rwanda because we want to make it to Europe,” a female Eritrean migrant in Libya said.
Another refugee said, “We have been living in hell for over three years now and want out. I want a bright future and that is what I have been fighting for. I am happy that Rwanda is offering help but I do not know much about the opportunities we will be given in Rwanda.”
Many of the refugees are from the Horn of Africa—Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
“They will be transferred to safety in Rwanda on a voluntary basis. Under this agreement, the first group of 500 persons in need of international protection will be evacuated,” said Ms Kamayirese.
“While some may benefit from resettlement to third countries, others will be helped to return to countries where asylum had previously been granted, or to return to their home countries if it is deemed safe to do so. Some may be given permission to remain in Rwanda,” she added.
Human rights groups welcomed the move and called on Rwanda and its partners to provide information to the refugees ahead of their relocation to avoid misinformation.
“Many of the refugees in Libya just want to get out of the nightmare they are living in, so from their vantage point, any change is an improvement. But if Rwanda is stepping up to take them in, the government has a legal and moral responsibility to keep them safe,” Andrea Gagne, a human-rights activist documenting the lives of African migrants and refugees in Libya, said.
Rwanda rebuffed suggestions that it would receive payment from the EU to host African refugees from Libya.
“Rwanda did not receive any money to honour its commitment to host African refugees from Libya. This was our own proposal and we are committed to it. We believe in African solutions to African problems,” Ms Kamayirese said.
Rwanda’s appetite to host African refugees increased during President Paul Kagame’s tenure as AU Chair last year, during which he championed the vision of an integrated continent for free movement of people and goods.
Rwanda previously said it will provide African refugees work permits and freedom of movement within the country, once they arrive.
Last year, the country began issuing refugees with international travel documents to ease their movement across borders, except to their countries of origin.
It also started issued refugees with identity cards, replacing the ‘proof of registration’ documents. The IDs allow them to move freely within the country and access social services and jobs.
It is worth noting that a similar plan to send African refugees from Israel to Rwanda last year fell flat after criticism from human rights groups, who argued that the deal was “immoral”.