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UN to evacuate African refugees held in Libya to Rwanda

Five-hundred set to leave squalid detention centres, with more expected if scheme proves successful
UN called on all migrant detention centres in Libya were 'overcrowded' and to be shut down (AFP)

Hundreds of African refugees held in squalid detention centres across Libya will be evacuated to Rwanda by the United Nations, the UN's refugee agency said on Tuesday. 

The evacuations come after an agreement was struck between the UN, Rwanda and the African Union, the UNHCR said, as the situation inside Libya continues to deteriorate. 

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy for the central Mediterranean, said 500 refugees will be evacuated to Rwanda in a deal signed with the small east-central African nation and the African Union on Tuesday.

"The agreement with Rwanda says the number can be increased from 500 if they are satisfied with how it works," Cochetel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview ahead of the official UN announcement.

"It really depends on the response of the international community to make it work. But it means we have one more solution to the situation in Libya. It's not a big fix, but it's helpful."

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The first group of refugees from the Horn of Africa will be evacuated from Libya under a new "transit mechanism" partly funded by the European Union. 

Cochetel noted that the funding will come mainly from the EU and the African Union, which has received $20m from Qatar to support the reintegration of African migrants and refugees. 

Following the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has become the main transit point for migrants from around the world hoping to reach Europe. 

Human traffickers have exploited the situation and smuggled thousands of migrants from around the world via Libya to get to Europe. 

Many refugees hoping to reach Europe are picked up at sea by the EU-funded Libyan coast guard, which sends them back, often to be detained in squalid, overcrowded centres where they face beatings, rape and forced labour, according to aid workers and human rights groups.

According to the UNHCR, there are about 4,700 people from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan currently held in Libya's detention centres, which are nominally under government control but often run by armed groups.

Cochetel said that some evacuees may be resettled in third countries, while others will be helped to return to countries where they previously had asylum, or to their home countries if it is safe. Some will also be permitted to stay in Rwanda. 

Rwanda is the second African nation to provide temporary sanctuary to refugees and migrants stranded in Libya. UNHCR has evacuated around 2,900 refugees out of Libya to Niger since 2017 through a similar emergency transit mechanism.

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