A Look into Rwanda’s Migration Deal with Libya

The United Kingdom’s controversial legislation to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda has passed, after two years of delays. However, this deal is not the first migration deal Rwanda has signed in order to receive migrants from other countries. In 2019, Rwanda signed a deal with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the African Union (AU) in order to receive refugees and asylum seekers being held in detention centres in Libya, as well as those who were at risk in the country.

So let’s take a look at the deal, what it looks like, and how it differs from the new deal between the UK and Rwanda.

Deteriorating Security

For migrants from Africa and the Middle East heading to Europe, there are many different paths they take. Migrants often will travel from the coast of a nation, attempting to reach Europe by sea. Turkey, Libya, and Tunisia are key nations in these routes, with many migrants launching from their coasts in an attempt to reach perceived safety in Europe. However, unlike Turkey and Tunisia, Libya is embroiled in a civil war, creating a multitude of dangers for both the populace and migrants using the nation as a transit point for Europe.

The increasingly untenable security situation in Libya prompted Rwanda, the AU, and the UNHCR in 2019 to sign a deal in order to facilitate the transfer of migrants being held in Libyan detention facilities, as well as those determined to be at risk, to Rwanda. The program was in part driven by reports that claimed some migrants were being sold in modern-day slave markets in Libya.

The Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) was established as this deal. Rwandan President Paul Kagame made the offer to host refugees two years prior, and was selected for the program due to Rwanda’s comparative stability in a region marred by instability. Rwanda is already host to over 130,000 refugees, primarily from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi, two neighbours of Rwanda.

A photo of the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda. The camp is almost solely host to refugees from the DRC. As of 2021, the camp was home to approximately 12,300 people (Photo from Lynette Wilson/ENS).

Details of the Program

The ETM transfers migrants from Libya to Rwanda, where they are able to reside while the UNHCR processes their asylum claims. While being hosted in Rwanda, they are provided with residence, certifications necessary to receive basic humanitarian assistance in Rwanda, education, food, and psycho-social support for any of those suffering from the traumatic experience either from their general travels, or from their experience in Libya.

The program is completely voluntary for those in Libya.

Migrants who evacuate Libya as a part of the ETM are provided with several different options for a permanent place of residence:

  1. Voluntary return and reintegration to the country of origin in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM);
  2. Return to a previous country of admission where agreed by the authorities of that country;
  3. Resettlement in a third country;
  4. Longer term stay in Rwanda, subject to the agreement of the competent authorities;
  5. Access to other solutions in third countries.

According to the UNHCR, all migrants have chosen resettlement in a third country during discussions with the UNHCR. Migrants have been resettled in Norway, Sweden, Canada, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Finland, and the US.

A refugee is pictured embracing friends and family before he departs to Canada, from Rwanda (Photo from IOM 2023/Robert Kovacs).

While in Rwanda, migrants are able to enter into income-generating programs, facilitated by the Rwandan government, in order to ensure that “the evacuees become self-reliant.” They are also given language classes on English and Kinyarwanda (the native language to many in Rwanda and surrounding nations) in order for them to communicate with host communities.

The UNHCR must validate that evacuees qualify as a refugee under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. Following this, if a migrant wishes to resettle in another nation, the third country must also validate their status, and oftentimes holds interviews with those seeking resettlement in order to do so. They then determine if the applicant meets their own criteria, and if they do, they are able to be resettled.

According to the UNHCR, the whole process takes an average of six to eight months.

The ETM is largely funded by the EU, and is one of the EU’s many different programs related to either preventing migration to Europe, or making it safer to do so. The EU has invested tens of millions of euros into the program, which is presently funded up until 2026. EU funding goes to facilitating the transfer, as well as to upgrading Rwanda’s facilities in order for them to competently receive the migrants.

Evacuees have come entirely from East and West Africa. According to the UNHCR, evacuees have thus far come from 10 different countries: Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Guinea and Mali.

A photo of Ali Abdi, a Somali refugee who opened a shop in Rwanda (Photo from the UNHCR/Anthony Karumba).

As of the end of March of this year, 2,242 refugees have been evacuated from Libya to Rwanda as a part of the ETM. Of these, 1,623 refugees have been resettled into different countries.

The ETM with Rwanda was built upon a similar program established with Niger two years earlier, in 2017. The program transferred migrants from Libya to Niger.

Differences Between the UK’s Plan and the ETM

As earlier mentioned, the UK has just passed legislation, the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ bill, that is the theoretical last step in the UK’s plan to deport illegal migrants and illegal asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda. While this plan, of course, bears certain similarities to the ETM with Rwanda, it has several core differences that separate the plans.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pictured with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at 10 Downing Street in London, the UK (Photo from Paul Kagame on Instagram).

Firstly, the ETM is voluntary. Those subject to the UK’s plan are being deported, not transferred, to Rwanda. These deportations are, of course, forced.

Secondly, the ETM is a temporary settlement before the migrants are most likely resettled in a third country. The UK’s migration plan is meant to be a more permanent settlement in Rwanda of the migrants being deported. Those in the ETM will have their cases processed before they are able to be resettled in a third country, or returned to their home country. A provision of legislation signed between Rwanda and the UK is that migrants cannot be resettled in a third country, nor sent from Rwanda to their home country.

Thirdly, the ETM is meant to bring migrants out of a dangerous situation in Libya, and provide them temporary, but safe, accommodation while their claims are processed. The UK’s plan is meant to remove them from the UK, as a deterrent to more migrants making the journey, showing a key difference in the reasoning behind the plan.

The UK’s plan has received condemnation from the UN, as well as the EU. It may be read about in further detail here.

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray is a published journalist and historicist with over 5 years experience in writing. His primary focus is on East and West African affairs.


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