For refugees trapped in Libya, a flight out of danger
At Kigali airport, on a balmy Thursday night, a young Somali woman cradles her two-month-old baby. She carefully picks her way down the steps of an aircraft to the asphalt.
Like the family of four ahead of her and the group of around 10 teenage boys from Sudan behind, Zainab makes her way to the terminal building in silence. Exhausted from the journey, they exchange nothing but glances and cautious smiles.
There is a nervous energy in the air, part relief, part disbelief at the idea of having finally reached safety. Only once they pass all their document checks and sit inside the bus waiting for them outside the airport, do they begin to relax.
“I am very happy,” says Zainab. “We had a dream of getting out of Libya and now we are finally able to live in peace.”
Zainab, her partner Abdulbasit, and their daughter are part of a group of 66 highly vulnerable refugees – including 22 children separated from their parents and wider family – evacuated on a charter flight to Rwanda from Libya.
Many suffered human rights abuses, including beatings, extortion and rape during their time held in detention centres. Others risked being sold into slavery by traffickers and even death in desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean or through being caught up in the ongoing fighting.
“We had a dream of getting out of Libya and now we are finally able to live in peace.”
The group are the first to benefit from a newly announced Emergency Transit Mechanism. The agreement between the Government of Rwanda, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the African Union seeks to move refugees most at risk in Libya to the safety of a transit centre in Gashora, a district some 60 kms from Kigali.
Once they reached the transit centre late Thursday night, they gathered in the dining hall, where they were welcomed by the District Mayor, Richard Mutabazi, whose surname literally translates as ‘saviour’ in Kinyarwanda, the national language.
“We welcome you all here,” Mutabazi said. “Kindly consider this place your home away from home. Now we must all hug.”
Reluctant at first, Richard’s infectious persistence, hugging each refugee one by one, soon has the group smiling and embracing. After a warm meal, the hall buzzes with the noise of people getting to know their new neighbours.
“I feel so good, I feel like I finally have my freedom,” says Fatima*, a 20-year-old woman from Sudan. “You cannot imagine how life is in Libya, but here in Rwanda, it feels like life will be good.”
“Now I have hope,” says Abdul, 24, a Sudanese man who fled to Libya from Darfur. “Now I feel I can start my life again.”
At the centre, UNHCR is providing accommodation, food and water, as well as everyday items such as clothes, bed sheets and cooking utensils. Nine health professionals, including a psychologist, and a team of counsellors, who specialize in working with children and survivors of sexual violence, will help the evacuees come to terms with the trauma caused by the abuses they suffered in Libya.
Some will be processed for resettlement to other countries. Others will be helped with alternative options, including return to countries where they were previously granted asylum, returning home if they agree and it is safe to do so, or remaining as refugees in Rwanda.
In the meantime, the refugees are able to live and work amongst the host community. The residents of Biryogo, a small village nearby, are optimistic about the arrival of their new neighbours.
“This is good for us because with more people around, we can improve our business,” said Florence, a local shopkeeper. “But even without that, when someone is in danger you help them because you, on another day, might be the one needing help.”
War, violence and persecution drove 25.9 million people around the world to flee their homes by the close of last year. The vast majority – some 85 per cent – are hosted by developing countries.
Rwanda already shelters around 150,000 refugees, mostly from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By receiving people from Libya, the Central African nation is sharing in a global, collective response to refugee crises.
“This partnership is a clear sign that we can cooperate to address complex problems."
Speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York earlier this week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, urged world leaders to adopt multilateral approaches to modern challenges.
“We call on every member of the United Nations to uphold their legal obligations in a spirit of solidarity,” said Kagame. “This partnership [between Rwanda, UNHCR and the African Union] is a clear sign that we can cooperate to address complex problems. Africa itself is also a source of solutions.”
“It’s impossible to downplay just how crucial these evacuations are,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean. “They are a crucial lifeline that means these refugees, many of whom have suffered appalling abuses, can now look forward to rebuilding their lives.”
Stepping forward to evacuate refugees in great danger is a shining example of solidarity and responsibility-sharing of a kind that will be showcased at a high-level meeting in Geneva in December.
The Global Refugee Forum will bring together governments, international organizations, local authorities, civil society, the private sector, host community members and refugees themselves to discuss the best policies to protect refugees, and help them and their hosts to thrive and find lasting solutions.
* Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the refugees in this story.