By Nosmot Gbadamosi
Britain on Thursday unveiled a plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda in a deal that will almost certainly face legal challenges. In return for an upfront payment of 120 million pounds (about $157 million) the Rwandan government will take responsibility for asylum-seekers, excluding children, who seek refuge in the United Kingdom via irregular migration routes.
Refugee organizations and some British civil servants immediately criticized the plan as “cruel” and “callous.” As recently as last year, the British government raised concerns at the United Nations over Rwanda’s human rights record, calling for “independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.”
The deal being proposed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has in some ways already been attempted and failed. The Israeli government offshored several thousands of asylum-seekers to Rwanda between 2014 and 2017, and it abandoned the scheme when it emerged that almost all ended up in the hands of people smugglers and were subjected to slavery when traveling back to Europe. It is clear that sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda will not reduce the role of traffickers, who will continue to prey on persecuted people who have no legal routes into the U.K. to claim asylum.
Rwanda’s opposition leaders have denounced Britain’s shamelessness as the country struggles to host over 127,000 refugees—of whom 90 percent live in camps. “How could a richer, bigger country be unable to host refugees and think they could just dump them in Rwanda because they have money. It is unacceptable,” Frank Habineza, president of the Democratic Green Party and member of Parliament, told the East African.
In the past few months, Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel had attempted to close a similar deal with democratic countries like Ghana and Kenya, but both rejected it in the face of heavy criticism from their citizens. Patel and Johnson then found a more willing (if less palatable) partner in Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has no such qualms about domestic opposition.
As journalist Michela Wrong, who has been covering Rwanda since the genocide, argues in her book Do Not Disturb, Kagame is an authoritarian governing permanently, because “every election in Rwanda is rigged.” (In 2017, Kagame managed to win 99 percent of the vote.)
Kagame, who seized power in the wake of the 1994 genocide, has been lauded by many leaders abroad, even as he rules with an iron fist at home. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton called Kagame “one of the greatest leaders of our time,” while Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair declared him a “visionary leader.”
On the exterior, Rwanda appears a seemingly robust economy with rapid growth and improvements in health and education under a progressive Parliament in which roughly 60 percent of lawmakers are women. It ranked 38th on ease of doing business in a World Bank survey of 190 nations in 2020.
But as Kavitha Surana wrote in Foreign Policy in 2017, “there is a sort of Pleasantville quality to the country.” Behind the veneer is a regime critics describe as a brutal dictatorship.
Kagame’s political opponents have raised concerns over the killings and disappearances of opposition members at home and abroad. In Belgium, an exiled Rwandan politician was found floating in a canal in 2005, and in 2011 London’s metropolitan police warned a number of defectors they faced an “imminent threat” of assassination by Rwandan government agents. In 2021, a Rwandan ex-army officer was gunned down in Mozambique. The U.S. State Department recently cited politically motivated forced disappearances by the Rwandan military intelligence in its country report.
In 2021, Paul Rusesabagina—who was immortalized in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda—was imprisoned on terrorism charges after calling for “any means possible to bring about change” in a widely circulated video in 2018. “Rwanda is a country that has never known democracy. Kagame has exhibited many characteristics of the classic African strongman since taking power. He was elected with 95% of the vote and there is nobody in the world that can call results like that a free election and keep a straight face,” Rusesabagina wrote in a 2006 memoir.
Despite such accusations, British support for Kagame appears unwavering. As two of Rwanda’s highest-profile opposition leaders put it when French President Emmanuel Macron visited Kigali in May last year, “there are good dictators and bad dictators.”
Rwanda’s Western backers are perhaps not fooled by Kagame’s laundered image but choose to ignore it because of his reputation as an effective leader who is always ready to assist U.S. and European governments. Rwandan troops provide much-needed security services in Mozambique and the Central African Republic. Under a deal funded by the European Union, Rwanda has taken in evacuees from Libya and offered temporary asylum to hundreds from Afghanistan in transit to the United States.
Yet, even before the ink dries on the U.K. deal, the Rwandan government is revealing what lies beneath its seemingly benevolent facade. Kigali is much less willing to welcome refugees from neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania. Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta said on Thursday during a media conference in Kigali, “We would prefer not to receive people from neighboring countries.”
Ignoring Rwanda’s double standard, Johnson called the plan an “innovative approach” driven by a “shared humanitarian impulse” that will provide “safe and legal routes for asylum.” But, more significantly, he said that the deal would act as a “deterrent” to those illegally crossing the English Channel.
The plan is contingent on the passage of Britain’s Nationality and Borders Bill currently being reviewed by Parliament. In the meantime, Kagame under the Rwandan Constitution, revised in 2015, can serve until 2034 as the head of what has become a de facto single-party state.