Rwanda received 66 asylum-seekers previously held in a Libyan detention centre the first of 500 to be sent there under a new agreement with the United Nations to resettle people detained 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 while trying to reach Europe.
The United Nations has been looking for places to resettle them. Some have been sent to Niger, but few countries have come forward to take them.
Rwanda, which at one time in 1994 had over two million citizens displaced after genocide, signed a deal with the United Nations last month.
“We thank God. We cannot explain life back in Libya. There is fighting and we couldn’t sleep at night. Now, we feel safe,” Zainab Yousef, an asylum seeker, said in Somali through a translator in video footage provided by UNHCR. She was being processed at a centre south of Kigali.
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said in a statement the refugees arrived in Kigali on Thursday aboard a UN-chartered flight. Many were children, including a baby born in Libyan detention.
“In total, 26 evacuees were refugee children, nearly all without a family member or parent,” Baloch said. “One evacuee had not been outside a detention centre for more than four years.”
UNHCR said the group was from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. They were given asylum-seeker status while the agency determines whether they are refugees.
“A second evacuation flight is expected in the coming weeks as UNHCR continues efforts to move vulnerable refugees in Libya out of harm’s way,” said Baloch.
UNHCR will spend $10 million this year on flying refugees from Libya to Rwanda and building facilities with basic aid and services.
People smugglers exploited the turmoil in Libya to send thousands of migrants on dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, though the number of crossings dropped sharply from 2017 amid an EU-backed push to block departures.
Migrant detention centres 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 labour and have long appealed for their closure.