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What Rwandans really think of Britain's refugee relocation plan

Would Britain’s plan to relocate a number of asylum seekers to Rwanda be good for the African nation?

October 13 2023, 17.35pm

“The UK has to take responsibility, see how to handle their refugee problems and not send them to a non-democratic, poor country,” says Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan political figure and founder of the Development and Liberty for All party. She’s not alone in her thinking. As UK courts thrash out the plan’s legal merit, Rwandans are also at odds as to whether Britain’s plan to relocate a number of asylum seekers to the African nation would be good for Rwanda. Some say not whilst others see it as a point of pride.

“The country is not economically rich as in the West, but it is extremely rich in humanity and life, caring [where] the West does not. This life of not having much, but willing to share what you have is the life refugees could have in Rwanda,” says Nizeyimana Alexis, a Kigali-based author and political analyst. The country surpasses all economic superpowers by simply being willing to accept those others are not, he added.

Earlier this week, the UK Supreme Court finally heard the arguments in the latest appeal against the so-called Rwanda deal - yet another twist in a saga that has spun several British premierships, and cast doubt the UK’s ongoing membership of the European Convention of Human Rights. 

The deal between Britain and Rwanda’s president Paul Kagamel was originally unveiled in April 2022. The plan involved having initial 1,000 asylum seekers who had travelled to the UK, relocated to Rwanda for asylum processing as part of a trial scheme. The British government paid Rwanda £120 million at the time with further payments anticipated.

It was met with furore from members of the British public as well as politicians and charities, who lauded it “hideous,” “inhumane” and an “abomination.”

As of 2022, the UK was home to over 231,500 refugees who had travelled from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea. Upon arrival, they face years of processing as they navigate the quest for asylum that ostracises them from society by limiting where they can work and live. Sending a number of refugees to Rwanda would, according to the government, act as a deterrent to the thousands that each year embark on dangerous journeys to reach the UK. In 2022 alone, over 45,700 people crossed the English channel by small boat.

But as the first plane bound for Rwanda and carrying several asylum seekers readied on a runway in June 2022, behind the scenes human rights lawyers continued to fight the deal in the courts. Minutes after take off, the European Court of Human Rights revoked the removal orders of all passengers bound for Rwanda. The refugees disembarked, finding themselves back on the same British soil they had hoped to live on and the same soil they had been forcibly removed from only moments before.

Since then, it’s ping-ponged through the British court system. In December, the UK High Court ruled that the UK-Rwanda plan was lawful. The Court of Appeal overturned this in June, stating that Rwanda had “deficiencies” in its asylum process and couldn’t be considered a safe third country. The arguments the fiver  Supreme Court judges have heard this week circled the question of whether the deal would adhere to the ECHR - which Britain is still a member of, despite Brexit, and which prohibits inhuman treatment. Opponents of the deal say such treatment is all but a certainty if the deal goes ahead. 

More than 4,000 miles away in Rwanda, residents have their own opinions.

“Some people are not so happy… because that means the government will focus a lot of money on [the refugees]… but also where are they going to stay?” Daniel Sabiti, a local journalist, explains. The unemployment rate currently sits at 16.7% in Rwanda, while almost 10,000 people were estimated to be experiencing poverty or vulnerable to it in 2021.

“How will Rwanda find the money to [support] the well-being of refugees? They promise to get jobs, but the rate of unemployment among the youth is high,” echoes Ingabire, adding that the plan goes against human rights. 

The pros and cons for Rwanda

Forcing asylum seekers to Rwanda would be “like a death penalty,” says Sabiti. “You're denying them the right to actually seek refuge where they are; that’s the argument that most people raise… you're killing their wishes [and the Rwandan people are] not understanding of why the British government would vomit out the same people who came to their country,” he said. “If they'd wanted to come to Africa, they’d have come to Africa.”

Alexis believes the plan is, however, in line with human rights. “These people lost the confidence in the leadership of their origin but they are also not welcome in their dream destination, due to their illegal status. Providing them a haven of resting, putting order in their plans and applying legally for the migration in the UK or elsewhere in the world is an act of humanity,” he said, adding that the problem is people’s mindsets.

“On one hand, Western mentality is not favourable to the plan because it is not used to seeing a southern, mostly African, country providing solutions to world class problems and some western people underestimate Rwanda,” Alexis said. “On the other hand, the mentality of southern people is that the West is paradise on Earth and are against the idea of establishing life bases in Africa.”

But there is also the thinking that this plan is good publicity for the country and that the financial sweetener will be of benefit. In addition to the £120 million, the UK government will also pay Rwanda a per-person cost to cover operations, accommodation, and integration. That cost will be “similar” to what it would cost in the UK, which is £12,000 per person.

“The moment we heard that there are people coming and there's economic development, it all sounded like an opportunity to Rwandans,” Edwin Musoni, a communications consultant based in Kigali, adds. That money has been earmarked for infrastructure projects, which have the potential to create employment opportunities. A report by the World Bank in 2021 found that Rwanda would need to find significant funds for its infrastructure development if it were to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030 deadline. A lack of housing for a growing population remains the country’s main infrastructure challenge.

To certain Rwandans, the longer-term price of this programme may be much higher, though.

Ingabire warned that, if deemed successful, other countries may opt to leave their asylum seekers at Rwanda’s door. And with this comes bigger questions around where an influx of people would live, work and study.

A Rwandan government spokesperson told The Lead, “Rwanda will provide all relocated individuals with adequate accommodation, initially in reception facilities when they arrive and then to more long-term housing within our communities in Rwanda, living alongside Rwandans.”

New housing developments in Kigali, such as the Gahanga housing development and Bwiza Riverside Estate, partially supported by the £120 million, are believed to have a proportion of properties earmarked for asylum seekers. The use of existing facilities has also been discussed. 

Sabiti told of how an initial suggestion by the Rwandan government was to relocate residents of Hope Hostel, which was built with donations for survivors 1994 Genocide against Tutsi. It has been predominantly used by students who were orphaned, providing somewhere to go during the holidays and a base after graduation. The majority had moved out with only 22 remaining at the time the deal with the UK was made; students have to move on six months after graduation. But Sabiti explained that many were unhappy that they would be forced to relocate earlier than anticipated to make way for the new residents.

“The genocide survivors were very upset, like why do you have to remove genocide survivors to accommodate asylum seekers?” he explains. 

The government spokesperson confirmed that Hope Hostel was “identified and prepared as initial accommodation early in the partnership and stands ready to receive the first arrivals.” They also explained that other accommodation facilities have been identified and that agreements will be concluded once there is more clarity on the dates and numbers of arrivals.

Once housed, Musoni said Rwanda’s approach will be to allow refugees to work, which he believes won’t be hard to find because of a focus on skills rather than nationality. “They are aligned in a way that they gradually get integrated in the society. When you have people actually working, you benefit and they benefit. They grow and you also grow,” Musoni says. “That's why you're not going to find any resistance on anyone coming in in Rwanda, because there's always a much bigger picture of a later benefit.”

Rwanda’s own history informs its attitude to refugees

As a nation where many have experiences of unwillingly leaving the country, Musoni, who himself was born in a Ugandan refugee camp, said asylum seekers would also be free from discrimination. “Someone who went through rejection would not want to see another person going through rejection. They would be willing to help. I think that might have inspired Rwanda to enter into this argument,” he adds.

The genocide saw around 2.5 million people displaced. Many returned to Rwanda while, in the years since, others from nearby nations have sought refuge in Rwanda, fleeing their own countries’ civil wars, displacement, and conflict. According to UNHCR, Rwanda currently shelters more than 127,000 refugees. Among them are 1,500 individuals who were relocated from Libya in a partnership with UNHCR in 2019. Their arrival didn’t come with a financial benefit but Rwandans still welcomed them, says Musoni.

But despite being within the top 12 African refugee host countries, Ingrabare said in regards to this latest plan to bring refugees to Rwanda, “we have to be humble and to recognise that our means are limited, that we cannot resolve all problems.” 

Perhaps, Musoni suggests, more should be done to create opportunities for Africans in Africa, so they’re less likely to embark on treacherous journeys to reach the likes of the UK. “And if their countries have not created those opportunities, [maybe] there's another country in Africa that is willing to create those opportunities,” he adds.

In the meantime, when it comes to the UK-Rwanda deal, Sabiti believes the onus is on the UK to solve it. “If Rwanda is a poor country and sees an opportunity and grabs it, I think the blame should be on the British people… The British people should sort out their own ways of handling this and not use Rwanda as a tool to actually reject the process, or to reject the whole idea of reversing the cycle of asylum seeking.”

For the refugees, Sabiti said they should know that Rwanda is peaceful and has security for them. “But that's not what the refugees are looking for,” he said. “They are going to Europe for opportunities, not for peace and security.”

And in reality, peace and security may not be abundant in Rwanda either. Critics of the regime have been tortured or disappeared in Rwanda; some refugees protesting the government have been shot, and refugees sent to Uganda under a similar, earlier deal with Israel have been forcibly deported onwards. The contradiction of the outsourcing project - finding a country sufficiently remote unattractive to serve as a deterrent, but sufficiently safe to pass the muster of human rights checks - can yet sink the deal.

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