Rwanda opens its doors to asylum-seekers once headed for Europe

In 1994, 2 million Rwandans were displaced by genocide. Thursday, the country accepted the first of 500 asylum-seekers as part of a U.N. agreement. 

Ben Curtis/AP/File
A mother reaches out to hold the hand of her child as they walk home after a church service in the village of Rwinkwavu, Rwanda, Sept. 6, 2015. Rwanda received 66 asylum-seekers Sept. 26, 2019 as part of a new U.N. agreement. They expect to receive a total of 500.

Rwanda has received 66 asylum-seekers that were being held in a Libyan detention center, the first of a group of 500 to be sent there under a new agreement with the United Nations to help resettle people detained while trying to reach Europe.

Around 4,700 people seeking refuge are now estimated to be in custody in Libya, where authorities are trying to close the route across the Mediterranean that has seen thousands of people perish at sea while trying to reach Europe in recent years.

The U.N. has been looking for places to resettle them. Some have been sent to Niger in the past, but few countries have so far come forward to take them.

Rwanda, which at one time in 1994 had over 2 million of its citizens displaced after a genocide, signed a deal with the U.N. last month.

"We thank God. We cannot explain the life back there in Libya. There is fighting and we couldn’t even sleep peacefully at night. Now, we feel safe," Zainab Yousef, one of the asylum seekers, said in Somali through a translator in video footage provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She was being processed at a center 30 miles south of Kigali.

U.N.H.C.R. spokesman Babar Baloch said in a statement that the refugees arrived in Kigali late on Thursday aboard a U.N.-chartered flight. Many were children, including a baby born in Libyan detention two weeks ago.

"In total, 26 of the evacuees were refugee children, nearly all of them unaccompanied, without a family member or parent," Mr. Baloch said. "One evacuee had not been outside a detention center for more than four years."

U.N.H.C.R. said the group was from Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. They have been given asylum-seeker status while the agency determines whether they are refugees.

"A second evacuation flight is expected in the coming weeks as U.N.H.C.R. continues every effort to get vulnerable refugees in Libya out of harm’s way and to safety," said Mr. Baloch.

U.N.H.C.R. said it will spend $10 million this year on flying the refugees from Libya to Rwanda and building facilities that will provide basic aid and services.

Human smugglers have exploited the turmoil in Libya since 2011 to send hundreds of thousands of migrants on dangerous journeys across the central Mediterranean, though the number of crossings dropped sharply from 2017 amid an EU-backed push to block departures.

Migrant detention centers are nominally administered by the Libyan government, but often controlled by armed groups. Aid workers and rights groups say abuse is rife, including beatings and forced labor, and have long appealed for their closure.

This story was reported by Reuters. George Obulutsa contributed to this report.

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