Migrants trapped in Libyan detention centres where many have been subjected to abuse would be evacuated to Rwanda under an emergency plan being discussed with international humanitarian agencies and the EU.
The proposal is part of an increasingly urgent effort to relocate thousands of migrants from Libya after a July air strike by forces opposed to the internationally recognised government in Tripoli killed dozens of people in a detention centre in the capital.
The Rwandan initiative stems from President Paul Kagame’s offer in late 2017 to accept up to 30,000 African migrants from Libya over several years, although it will initially involve a much smaller number of people.
The EU is facing growing criticism over the plight of migrants as conflict worsens in Libya. The EU-trained Libyan coastguard has been instrumental in stopping people making the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, but rescued migrants are then sent to detention centres. Human rights groups have documented multiple cases of rape, torture and other crimes at the facilities, some of which are run by militias.
The proposal to evacuate migrants voluntarily to Rwanda would help deal with the “pervasively inhumane detention policy facing those disembarked in Libya”, according to a letter sent last month by the UN’s International Organization for Migration and High Commissioner for Refugees. It was addressed to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomat, and Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission.
Diyana Gitera, director-general for Africa at Rwanda’s foreign ministry, said the plan under discussion would involve her country accepting 500 refugees from Libya under an “emergency transit mechanism” funded by the EU and UN. She said Mr Kagame welcomed the “opportunity for Rwanda to also support refugees stranded in Libya, at these difficult times”.
The Rwandan offer is consistent with Mr Kagame’s record during nearly two decades in power of welcoming refugees. Rwanda already hosts almost 200,000 refugees, the majority are from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. While the majority of Burundians arrived in 2015 after civil conflict, an estimated 50,000 Congolese refugees have been in Rwanda since 1996.
But sceptics warn that evacuating migrants from Libya to Rwanda would not necessarily rescue them from their current limbo, unable to go home or to travel onwards.
Marwa Mohamed, head of advocacy for Lawyers for Justice in Libya, a non-governmental group with offices in London and Tripoli, said the Rwanda plan risked “outsourcing the problem to another country”.
She added that the only viable long-term solution was for European countries to offer more pathways to migration, such as via resettlement or temporary working visas.
“If you provide them with these legal routes, they don’t need to submit themselves into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers,” she said.
The UN estimates almost 5,000 migrants are in detention centres in Libya, about 70 per cent of them refugees and asylum seekers. The migrants earmarked for relocation are likely to be a mix of refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors and stateless people.
The government in Tripoli has stepped up calls to close the centres after more than 50 people were killed in the air attack in the suburb of Tajoura last month.
Vincent Cochetel, UN High Commissioner for Refugees special envoy for the central Mediterranean, confirmed his organisation was exploring the Rwanda evacuation option alongside the African Union. The EU said it was following the Rwanda plan and stood ready to consider supporting it.
Rwandan officials visited an internationally run evacuation facility in Libya’s neighbour Niger on a fact-finding mission last month. More than 1,000 relocated migrants are stuck there — in part because of the paucity of resettlement places offered by European countries, according to diplomats and analysts.
Details have yet to be finalised, but international officials hope many of the evacuees will eventually be resettled elsewhere. Others may stay on in Rwanda, or return home. Some are likely to be from other eastern African states such as Ethiopia and Somalia — though many among them may be unable or unwilling to go back.