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Europe’s Harsh Border Policies Are Pushing Refugees All the Way to Rwanda
EU funds for Libyan militias forced thousands of migrants into dangerous Libyan detention centers. Now, after being evacuated, some of them are stuck as far away as Rwanda—with no idea if they will ever be resettled.
GASHORA, Rwanda—Until the day before he left Libya in October 2019, Alex was enslaved by a militia aligned with the United Nations-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. For months, the young Eritrean had been moving weapons and ammunition, cleaning, and even building a shelter for horses owned by Mohammed al-Khoja, the deputy head of the Government of National Accord’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration.
He worried about airstrikes and drones: The buzzing sound made him run for cover. He also stressed about potentially brutal punishments from men commanded by Khoja, who was also known as a vicious militia leader, making Alex frightened to disobey them. Alex, whose name has been changed for his safety, knew his proximity to fighters made him both a human shield and a target in Tripoli’s ongoing war.
Alex’s story is an illustration of the impacts of hardening European Union border policy, which forces refugees back to a dangerous country where they live at the mercy of Libyan militias. It demonstrates the traumas an asylum-seeker can go through before getting the chance to make a legal claim for protection, and how even the small number of people eventually chosen for evacuation from Libya suffer from long-term consequences and ongoing instability.
Like huge numbers of his countryfolk, Alex fled indefinite national service in Eritrea’s dictatorship and traveled to Libya in the hope of reaching Europe and finding “freedom.” A U.N. commission of inquiry has previously accused the leadership of Eritrea of carrying out crimes against humanity, while describing the national service system as “slavery-like.”
After paying $16,000 in smugglers’ fees borrowed from family and friends, Alex tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, but the rubber boat he was on was intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan coast guard.
For more than a year after that, Alex was held in Triq al-Sikka detention center, the de facto headquarters of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration, which ostensibly oversees many of Libya’s migrant detention centers. (The department did not respond to a request for comment.)
After war broke out in April 2019, militiamen brought Alex across the road to work in an area they were using as a base, located in the outer perimeter of a center set up by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to house refugees before they were legally evacuated (Alex’s story was corroborated by the accounts of other refugees. Aid officials who visit Triq al-Sikka told Foreign Policy they have noticed certain detainees are often missing. UNHCR said it had heard allegations of detainees being used as forced labor in the Gathering and Departure Facility, but it could not verify them.)
In the months afterward, Alex returned to detention only for his meetings with UNHCR staff. He was interviewed and fingerprinted, and finally given good news: He would be evacuated to Rwanda.
Over the past three years, the EU has allocated nearly 100 million euros, around $100 million, to spend on the Libyan coast guard, with the aim of intercepting and stopping boats of migrants and refugees who are trying to reach Europe. Tens of thousands of people who could have their asylum claims assessed if they managed to reach European soil have instead been returned to Libya to spend months or years in for-profit detention centers where sexual violence, labor exploitation, torture, and trafficking have been repeatedly documented. They wait, in the unlikely hope of being selected for a legal route to safety.
When questioned about the ramifications of their policy, EU spokespeople regularly say they are funding the U.N. to improve conditions for refugees and migrants. UNHCR, in turn, has said it cannot provide safety for refugees in Libya, meaning their only real hope is evacuation. Those numbers are low, though: 2,427 people last year got the option to go with UNHCR either directly to European countries or to a transit country where their cases can be considered for resettlement to Europe or North America. In contrast, nearly 1,000 refugees and migrants were returned to Libya in the first two weeks of 2020 alone.
Both Niger and Romania have previously been used as transit countries, though the number of people going to Niger have slowed because of problems processing cases. This past September, Rwanda announced it will also begin to take evacuees, following negotiations and a deal signed with the African Union and UNHCR. “Africa itself is also a source of solutions,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame, speaking about the agreement at the U.N. General Assembly last year.
The Rwandan government did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and a list of emailed questions, while African Union spokespeople did not respond to an interview request.
UNHCR is still appealing for funding, saying it hopes to evacuate 1,500 people to Rwanda by the end of 2020, with the program expected to cost nearly $27 million by then. So far, according to numbers provided by UNHCR, the EU has pledged 10 million euros, Norway just over 5 million euros, and Malta 50,000.
From the Rwandan capital of Kigali, it takes two buses and a motorbike drive to reach Gashora, 40 miles southeast of the capital city, where hundreds of evacuees from Libya are now staying. There is no fence around the refugee camp, and it seems like it would be easy just to walk in, avoiding a gate where guards stand watch. “It’s an invisible wall,” one Eritrean said, laughing.
I wasn’t allowed inside. Though a relatively secure country with much-lauded economic development, Rwanda is also a dictatorship and police state with a tightly controlled media. After several ignored emails over two months, as well as five days of waiting at the Ministry of Emergency Management when I visited in November 2019, a communications official told me journalists can’t visit alone. I would be invited back on a future group trip instead, he said, as I already had media accreditation.
“They gave you accreditation, because we believe you will write good stories about us,” the Rwandan official told me in a candid moment. “We deny some people accreditation, I think you know that.” The invitation to join the group trip never came.
Instead, in a small, bare room in a bar outside the camp that same month, a group of refugees gathered to tell me their stories. For more than a year, they had been sending me evidence of human rights abuses from a network of Libyan detention centers, using a series of phones they kept hidden throughout.
Now they say they are grateful to be in Rwanda, but they also resent the time they spent locked up. They’re worried about their own futures and about everyone they have left behind.
Evacuees came from Libyan detention centers including Zintan, Ain Zara, Abu Salim, Triq al-Sikka, and Sabaa, where they experienced an array of horrors. They witnessed deaths from medical negligence and suffered through deliberate food deprivation, torture, and forced recruitment.
Alex—who was present in Triq al-Sikka when a hopeless Somali detainee set himself on fire in 2018—showed me how his nail was still cracked from being forced to lift heavy weapons. Some of the migrants had contracted tuberculosis, while others were battling trauma. “Most of our minds are completely spoilt. We’re afraid of motorbikes, of helicopters,” one Eritrean told me.
The trauma could last a long time. Speaking about the “precarious living conditions” and “grave human rights violations” refugees in Libya’s detention system have gone through, Sonal Marwah, a humanitarian affairs manager with Doctors Without Borders, said survivors suffer from emotional and psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression.
Now, the refugees in Rwanda are struggling with their new reality. A young woman said she has gone on a diet and is only eating one meal a day so she can “regain” her “figure,” after spending so long in detention without being able to move around. Some minors are battling addictions or have begun patronizing the influx of Rwandan prostitutes they say arrived in Gashora shortly after them. Two refugees who stayed out late drinking were robbed. “It’s like a baby who walks when he’s not old enough. It’s like a new planet for us,” said an Eritrean man.
They feel they can’t trust anyone anymore, convinced everyone around them has tried to profit from them: whether Libyan authorities, smugglers, the U.N., or the Rwandan government.
All 15 refugees I interviewed in Rwanda say they believed they would be resettled onward, to countries in Europe or North America. Some said that it was only when they signed documents on the night before they left Libya that UNHCR staff informed them they might have to stay in Rwanda for longer. There were consequences for backing out at that stage, too. UNHCR confirmed a “very small number” of refugees in Libya refused to go to Rwanda, meaning the agency will not consider them for resettlement or evacuation again.
While I was in Rwanda, there was tension in Gashora camp after refugees kicked over chairs at a meeting with authorities, protesting changes to food distribution they believed were designed to keep them there long-term. Afterward, they said, the camp’s guards told them they were no longer allowed gather in big groups. “They think they can teach us how to survive—we should be teaching them,” Alex said about the dispute.
In November, evacuees got another shock when UNHCR’s special envoy for the Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, tweeted that refugees in Rwanda have “wrong” expectations. “We have no obligation to resettle all refugees in/from Libya,” he wrote. “They can locally integrate in Rwanda if they want, [while] learning and mentally accepting that there is not just a ‘Europe option.’”
Those who spoke to me said they felt this was just another disregard for what they have been through, with some saying they would rather have paid smugglers to try to cross the Mediterranean Sea again rather than being moved somewhere they see no future, and are willing to go back to Libya and try again. Others accused UNHCR of using their evacuations as a public relations coup to show the agency is doing something, while promoting the Rwandan government’s charity, instead of prioritizing evacuees’ welfare.
“From the outside, the evacuations to Rwanda seem as a great solution to those detained in Libya, but if you dig deeper you’ll find many unanswered questions, like who gets to be evacuated out of the total 40,000+ registered asylum-seekers and refugees in Libya,” Amera Markous, a Libyan migration researcher wrote in a text message.
“What is the level of understanding of these terms before they evacuate them, and how ‘voluntary’ are they, if they are explained inside detention centers, where refugees can’t even have a private place for such interviews that determine their future?” she asked. “If I went through tragic journeys and finally left a place like Libya, I’d be expecting UNHCR or any responsible entity to provide a durable solution which fits my aspirations, not just getting me out of Libya to repeat it all again.”
Matteo de Bellis, a migration researcher at Amnesty International, said while any effort to bring refugees to safety should be welcomed, “only a reduced number of people have been able to benefit from this opportunity, as most countries—including EU countries that have cooperated with Libya to contain refugees and migrants there—are offering very few places for resettlement.”
The evacuation program “risks exacerbating a situation where the vast majority of refugees continue to be hosted in developing countries, while richer ones spend their resources on keeping people out at any cost,” he said. This means refugees’ welfare can stay tied to ever-shifting donor funding, and they can struggle to find stability.
In January, Cochetel seemingly backtracked, telling an audience in Berlin the “vast majority” of evacuees will be resettled, but it will take about a year.
In response to questions from Foreign Policy, UNHCR spokeswoman Elise Villechalane said everyone evacuated to Rwanda was informed that resettlement is not guaranteed. “While for the first Rwanda flights the counselling was in some instances provided closer to the time of departure, it is usually provided about two weeks before,” she said. “Refugees are asked to sign a document … stating they understand the implications of the process.”
UNHCR said it has received 1,150 resettlement pledges from other countries for refugees in Rwanda, with Norway alone pledging to take in 600 refugees (not all of them from Libya). Some Libya evacuees have already been accepted to go to Sweden. The number of available places is still “far outstripped by the needs,” Villechalane said.
This all raises the question: At what point does the EU become responsible for refugees it has forced from its borders through externalization policies? How much suffering can they go through before European officials recognize some obligation? More than 2,500 miles south of Europe’s borders, Rwanda’s new arrivals are wondering just that, while waiting to find out their futures. At some moments, Alex said, he feels suicidal, while at others he feels a glimmer of hope. He’s haunted by the memories of others who died in Libya. “We are really tired,” he said in a message in January. “We are nothing to them, nothing at all, they could leave us here. There is nothing we could do.”
“Africa is Africa,” he has repeated throughout months of contact from both Libya and Rwanda, saying he’s worried about corruption, repression, exploitation, a lack of freedom, and a lack of opportunity in his birth continent. In Europe, Alex believes, refugees “can start a new life, it’s like we [will be] born again. All the suffering and all the torture, this only makes us stronger.”
His experience over the past few years has convinced him he won’t feel secure until he has the same rights as a European and the same freedom to travel if something goes wrong, wherever he may end up.
“Still no one really feels or understands what we’ve been through. We resisted all the suffering and torture … only to get our goal” of reaching safety, he said. “We trusted UNHCR, we trusted the European countries, and we came here. They owe us.”