Under an agreement reached with the United Nations (UN) refugee agency and the African Union (AU), Rwanda will be admitting hundreds of African refugees and asylum-seekers held in Libyan detention centres.

Since the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has developed into a major transit route for refugees from the continent trying to reach Europe by sea. Figures from the UN suggest some 4,700 refugees are currently in Libyan custody.

“Under the agreement, the government of Rwanda will receive and provide protection to refugees and asylum-seekers who are currently being held in detention centres in Libya,” the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a joint statement.

Tuesday’s agreement between Rwanda and the international organizations follows several allegations of grave conditions for migrants in Libya’s detention centres such as routine abuse, lack of medical care and insufficient food.

“We have been desperately searching for solutions for those people,” UNHCR’s Representative to the AU, Cosmas Chanda said at a news conference in Addis Ababa, where the AU headquarters is located.

A transit mechanism, set up after a memorandum of understanding was signed in the Ethiopian capital, will see an initial group of 500 people evacuated in the coming weeks. This group includes children and at-risk youth, most of who are from the Horn of Africa region, the statement said.

“We will be receiving the initial number of 500 in a few weeks,” Rwanda’s Ambassador to the AU, Hope Tumukunde Gasatura said after the signing of the agreement alongside representatives of the AU and the UNHCR.

Evacuated refugees will be sheltered in a transit centre in Rwanda before being resettled elsewhere unless they agree to return to their home countries, provided it is safe to go back. Meanwhile, the Rwandan Minister for Emergency Management, Germaine Kamayirese, said that “some may be given permission to remain in Rwanda”.

The Rwandan government is prepared to accept as many as 30,000 Africans from Libya, a commendable effort according to the UN official. “Fewer countries around the world are more than prepared to admit refugees,” Chanda added.

The signing of the agreement is a culmination of a commitment by the Rwandan government in 2017 to host African migrants stranded in North Africa, Al Jazeera said. In November of that year, reports surfaced about what appeared to be a slave market in Libya. Thousands of people from the Horn of Africa, who had failed to connect to Europe, were stranded in the country and were allegedly “being sold in modern-day slave markets”, moving President Paul Kagame to commit to admitting the victims.

The problem then got renewed attention last month when dozens of people – more than 40 – were killed in an airstrike on a migrant detention centre in a Libyan town. Rwanda also said in July that it will provide refugees with work permits, access to education, identification documents and general freedom of movement within the country once they are relocated from Libya.

The AU has hailed the deal with Rwanda as an example of African governments stepping up to solve the continent’s problems even as officials hope other African countries will offer similar assistance.

“It is a historical moment because Africans are extending their hands to other Africans,” AU Social Affairs Commissioner, Amira Elfadil said. “We kept on talking about finding durable solutions. My belief is this is part of the durable solutions.”

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