By Nita Bhalla and Tom Finn
NAIROBI/LONDON, Sept 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - H undreds of African refugees trapped in Libyan detention centres will be evacuated to Rwanda within the next few weeks as part of increasingly urgent efforts to relocate people as conflict rages in north African nation, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Vincent Cochetel, special envoy for the central Mediterranean for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), said 500 refugees will be evacuated to Rwanda in a deal signed with the small east African nation and the African Union on Tuesday.
"The agreement with Rwanda says the number can be increased from 500 if they are satisfied with how it works," Cochetel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview ahead of the official U.N. announcement.
"It really depends on the response of the international community to make it work. But it means we have one more solution to the situation in Libya. It's not a big fix, but it's helpful."
Libya has become the main conduit for Africans fleeing war and poverty trying to reach Europe, since former leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
People smugglers have exploited the turmoil to send hundreds of thousands of migrants on dangerous journeys across the central Mediterranean although the number of crossings dropped sharply from 2017 amid an EU-backed push to block arrivals.
Many are picked up at sea by the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard which sends them back, often to be detained in squalid, overcrowded centres where they face beatings, rape and forced labour, according to aid workers and human rights groups.
According to the UNHCR, there are about 4,700 people from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan currently held in Libya's detention centres, which are nominally under the government but often run by armed groups.
A July air strike by opposition forces, which killed dozens of detainees in a centre in the Libyan capital Tripoli, has increased pressure on the international community to find a safe haven for the refugees and migrants.
Under the Rwandan deal, refugees will be airlifted to Rwanda in groups of about 50 and stay in a transit facility located on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali, said UNHCR officials.
Evacuation is on a voluntary basis, they said, and priority will be given to the most vulnerable such as unaccompanied children and youth, disabled people and the elderly. Most of the refugees will be from countries in the Horn of Africa.
Cochetel said some evacuees may be resettled in third countries, while others will be helped to return to countries where they previous had asylum, or to their home countries if it is safe. Some may be permitted to stay in Rwanda, he added.
"The government has said 'if you (UNHCR) think the people should stay long-term in Rwanda, no problem. If you think they should be reunited with their family, they should be resettled, no problem. You (UNHCR) decide on the solution'," said Cochetel.
"Rwanda has said 'we'll give them the space, we'll give them the status, we'll give them the residence permit. They will be legally residing in Rwanda as refugees'."
A landlocked country of 12 million that ranks as one of the Africa's most densely populated, Rwanda already supports around 150,000 refugees from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.
Cochetel said funding would mainly come from the EU but also from the African Union which has received $20 million from Qatar to support the reintegration of African migrants and refugees.
Rwanda is the second African nation to provide temporary sanctuary to refugees and migrants stranded in Libya. UNHCR has evacuated around 2,900 refugees out of Libya to Niger since 2017 through a similar emergency transit mechanism.
"The more African countries we have on board ... is good because it demonstrates to Europe there are also things happening in the South," said Cochetel. (Writing by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and Tom Finn, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)