Rwanda to take 500 refugees from squalid Libyan detention centres in 'life-saving act'

Anne Gulland
Migrants and refugees rescued by the Italian Navy off the coast of Libya - AFP

Hundreds of African refugees trapped in “dire” Libyan detention centres will be evacuated to Rwanda in an agreement signed between the United Nations, the African Union and the Rwandan government. 

The first cohort of 500 refugees, including children, will be voluntarily evacuated to the African country over the coming days - from here they will either be allowed to stay, be permanently resettled in other countries or will be helped to return home.

Around 4,500 migrants and refugees from countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Eritrea, are being held in appalling conditions in detention centres in Libya.

Libya has become a focal point for Africans fleeing war and poverty, some of whom have ended up in the north African country after being picked up attempting to cross the Mediterranean. 

The Libyan coastguard has been funded by the European Union to stop migrants and refugees ending up on European shores and as a result the number of migrants arriving in Europe has fallen dramatically over recent years. Just over 140,000 people landed in Europe last year compared to a high of more than a million during the 2015 migrant crisis. 

But many refugees and migrants have been dumped in squalid, overcrowded centres where disease outbreaks are rife

Last month the Libyan government promised to close three of the 29 centres after 50 detainees were killed in an airstrike during fighting by rival forces.

Babar Baloch, a spokesman for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, described Rwanda’s decision to take some of the refugees as a “life-saving act”.

“Discussions with Rwanda have been going on for a while. Refugees and asylum seekers have been in a dire situation in Libya and more places were needed to evacuate them to. Rwanda has come forward with this humanitarian gesture,” he said.

Evacuation flights are expected in the coming weeks and will be carried out in cooperation with the Rwandan and Libyan authorities. 

The refugees will have the right to work and access services and UNHCR will work with Rwandan authorities to offer vocational training.

UNHCR has evacuated more than 4,400 refugees and asylum seekers out of Libya to other countries since 2017, including 2,900 to Niger and 425 to European countries, including the UK.

In a separate interview with the Telegraph Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s envoy for the central Mediterranean, called for all the detention centres to be closed and for the detainees to be moved to urban areas.

He described the centres as “sordid warehouses not fit for human habitation”.

“The government has lost control over some of these centres and they are in the hands of militias who are only accountable to themselves and not to any state authorities. 

“It’s part of their business model to exploit people for labour purposes and sexual exploitation. People are rented out, leased and sold on and are even drafted onto the front lines. They are simply manpower,” he said.

“Those where you have the worst human rights violations taking place are located close to the conflict lines and at any point in time you could have an airstrike. Some are located in military premises and could be mistaken for military targets,” he said. 

The UN Refugee Agency provides minimal assistance to the centres, to which it has only sporadic access and where  Mr Cochetel has seen children as young as six being held.

“Very few people in the detention centres are dangerous - the vast majority of people should not be detained. We are looking at solutions, such as housing them in urban areas," he said. 

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