"It is a historical moment because Africans are extending their hands to other Africans," said Amira Elfadil, the African Union's social affairs commissioner.
Rwanda's government has agreed to receive hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers currently held in Libyan detention centers after an agreement was reached between Rwanda, the African Union (AU) and the United Nations refugee agency Tuesday.
The three parties signed on a Memorandum of Understanding in Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital, to arrange a transit mechanism for evacuating the refugees out of Libya.
The first group of people, including children and young people predominantly from the Horn of Africa, will be evacuated in the coming weeks, according to a statement published on the UNHCR website.
"Under the agreement, the government of Rwanda will receive and provide protection to refugees and asylum-seekers who are currently being held in detention centers in Libya," UNHCR said in the statement.
The Rwandan ambassador Hope Tumukunde said the refugees and asylum seekers will be sheltered in centers that had served for Burundian refugees fleeing Burundi's political crisis in 2015. They will remain in these facilities until their resettlement to third countries unless they decide to return to their countries if it is safe to do so or to stay in Rwanda.
The Rwandan government said it was ready to welcome as many as 30,000 people, though the plan consists of receiving them little by little, by groups of 500 people, in order to avoid submerging the country.
Some 4,700 African refugees and asylum seekers are currently in Lybia, according to the U.N.
The accord came after repeated warnings from human rights groups against the alarming conditions of detention the refugees undergo in Libya, including sexual abuse, forced labor, lack of food and medical help.
"We've received increasingly distressing reports of people in detention centres who are in such a state of despair they've considered taking their own lives, or have done so. These people are begging...pleading for someone to help them." #MSF's Head of Mission in #Tripoli #Libya pic.twitter.com/FWbgyGWjoh— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) May 9, 2019
"We have been desperately searching for solutions for those people," said the UNHCR's representative to the AU, Cosmas Chanda, at a press conference in Addis Ababa, where the headquarters of the African body is located.
The signing of the agreement marks the last act of a pledge made by the Rwandan government in 2017 to host African refugees stranded in the North African country. Rwandan President Paul Kagame promised to receive the refugees after reports showed thousands of them, who could not make it to Europe, at the mercy of militias selling them as slaves or into prostitution.
The AU praised the deal as an example of the African countries taking measures to solve the continent’s problems.
"It is a historical moment because Africans are extending their hands to other Africans," said Amira Elfadil, the AU's social affairs commissioner, adding that "we kept on talking about finding durable solutions. My belief is this is part of the durable solutions."
Officials said they were hoping that other African countries would follow this example, however, Elfadil said that none have volunteered so far.
Since the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 in a U.S./NATO-backed intervention, Libya has become the main departure point for refugees fleeing wars and poverty, often losing their lives while trying to reach Europe.
The EU has been denounced by rights groups for financing Libyan coast guards to pick up rescued migrants in the Mediterranean and to re-send them to a war-torn country. The U.N. denied claims that the bloc was behind the deal to keep migrants away from Europe.
Special envoy for the UNHCR for the central Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel told Reuters the funding would essentially come from the EU and from the AU which received US$ 20 million from Qatar to support the project. But later on Twitter, he said that no funding had been found and that he was working on it with partners.