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EU-Rwanda plan: Another short-sighted answer to Libya migration crisis

‘The new plan comes with a serious political price.’

Photo of migrant in Libyan detention centre
A migrant leans against a pillar in the courtyard at a detention centre in Libya. (Alessio Romenzi/UNICEF)

After deadly airstrikes and attacks on migrant detention centres in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, the European Union has come up with a new plan to evacuate vulnerable migrants and refugees stranded in the volatile North African nation: send them to Rwanda.

The proposal – which is reported to involve some 500 detainees but does not yet have a timeline – is expected to alleviate some of the most immediate humanitarian needs facing migrants and refugees, many of whom have been caught in the crosshairs of Libya’s renewed civil war.

But it is an emergency fix that does little to address the needs of thousands of other migrants and refugees who remain stuck in detention centres and require direct evacuation from Libya to Europe, or other durable solutions.

The EU must also acknowledge that the new plan comes with a serious political price. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is not welcoming refugees simply out of generosity: he will likely ask for a diplomatic reward from Europe – one that boosts Rwanda’s international leadership on migration and refugee affairs, while remaining silent about recent human rights abuses.

It may come with a price for the migrants and refugees, too. The small East African country already hosts more than 148,000 refugees, and it has officially granted them social and economic rights, including the right to work. But rights on paper do not always equate to rights in practice, and refugees in Rwanda often struggle to access public services and employment opportunities. The government has also violently repressed refugee protests against discrimination and food shortages in camps.

The new relocation plan did not come out of thin air. In 2017, after CNN released a video of migrants auctioned off at markets in Tripoli, Rwanda offered to welcome some of those rescued from Libya.

At the time, however, it was deemed easier to transfer them to Niger, Libya’s southern neighbour. Thanks to an agreement reached at the African Union-EU summit meeting in November 2017, Niger has since welcomed over 2,900 migrants from Libya.

But Niger’s willingness to cooperate with Libya and the EU seems to have reached its limit. Those evacuated to Niger were supposed to be making a temporary stop before returning home with the assistance of the UN’s migration agency, or being resettled in Europe. But the operation faced repeated problems, largely because EU countries were too slow at actually resettling the evacuated refugees.

While the EU has invested heavily in curbing irregular migration through Niger, projects aimed at mitigating the downsides of strengthened border management – such as support to help smugglers in Agadez transition to new jobs – have so far failed to deliver.

As Niger heads into a presidential election in 2021, the government may become less inclined to cooperate with the Europeans and less willing to welcome more migrants across its borders.

For the time being, it seems that plans are for the 500 evacuees to stay in Rwanda, where they will either apply for asylum or, better, be granted refugee status directly. But if the EU wishes to make the arrangement sustainable – instead of a one-time evacuation – it must rectify the mistakes of Niger and make sure durable solutions are effectively offered to those who are evacuated.

This is not new to the EU, which is now used to trading away political capital and moral high ground for deals that keep migrants away from its shores.

There also needs to be a plan for how the 500 migrants will be selected, by whom, and how the EU and Rwanda will ensure that they travel on a voluntary basis. Compared to a journey to nearby Niger – which is already cumbersome – a flight to a faraway country may neither be sensible nor cost effective for already vulnerable people, especially if the plan is to resettle them to Europe later on.

The EU’s leverage over Rwandan policies –both towards migrants and refugees, and its own citizens – will meanwhile be limited, considering that Rwanda is doing Europe a favour. This is not new to the EU, which is now used to trading away political capital and moral high ground for deals that keep migrants away from its shores.

Ultimately, even if this arrangement with Rwanda works, it will remain an insufficient response. In the long-term European countries must focus greater effort on supporting solutions that decrease violence and increase stability in Libya. This will require measures that go well beyond the migration agenda and range from improving local governance to reform of the security sector and peacebuilding.

To apply the lessons learned from the experience in Niger, the EU should meanwhile ensure the agreement with Rwanda is one piece of a broader puzzle that includes more direct evacuations from Libya to Europe – as well as longer-term thinking about the structural issues Europeans and Africans face to make migration flows more regular, safe, and orderly.

(TOP PHOTO: A migrant leans against a pillar in the courtyard at a detention centrein al-Khoms, Libya.)

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