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Rwandans weigh in on the UK's plan to deport asylum-seekers

Cristina Krippahl
June 14, 2022

The UK has been thwarted in its initial attempts to deport migrants to Rwanda after the European Court of Human Rights issued last-minute injunctions. Rwandans are watching events unfold with skepticism.

People protesting in front of Rwanda's High Commission in London
The deportation deal between the UK and Rwanda has provoked many protests Image: Vuk Valcic/Zuma Wire/IMAGO

Britain's first flight to take asylum seekers to Rwanda did not take off as planned after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued last-minute injunctions to stop the deportations.

More than 30 migrants were originally ordered to be sent to Rwanda after two British courts on Monday refused to block the deportation flights.

The courts rejected last-ditch appeals filed by immigration rights advocates and labor unions.

According to British media, 23 asylum-seekers have since had their deportations put on hold due to individual appeals. That left just a handful of migrants set to be deported, until the ECHR stepped in.

London and Kigali signed an agreement in April that would send people seeking asylum in the UK to the East African country. Authorities in Rwanda will process the asylum claims and, if successful, refugees will be allowed to stay in that country. The UK will help cover up to $157 million (€144 million) of expenses. 

 British Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan minister for foreign affairs and international co-operation, Vincent Biruta, signed a "world-first" migration and economic development partnership in the East African nation's capital city Kigali
The agreement was signed on April 14 by British Interior Minister Priti Patel (left) and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent BirutaareImage: Flora Thompson/PA Wire/picture alliance

Rwanda, UK accused of human rights violations

The UK is expected to pay more money as Rwanda accepts more migrants.

The deal has sparked accusations that the deal allows the two countries to engage in human trafficking. But both the UK and Rwanda argue that trafficking is precisely what the pact aims to fight.

"We're doing this for the right reasons," Yolande Makola, Rwanda's government spokeswoman, said during a press conference held in the capital on Tuesday.

"We understand that there might be opposition to this, but we are asking that this program be given a chance because it's a solution," she said, adding that the [global] asylum system was broken.

"People are risking their lives in these dangerous crossings. So something has to give." 

The Rwandan government says it will house the asylum-seekers in hostels in and around the capital Kigali, indicating that it is not expecting the arrival of huge numbers.

Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said he was not worried about Rwanda's capacity to receive the refugees. "The question is: Is Rwanda a country that respects human, civil and political rights? For us, the answer is no," he told DW.

UK set to fly first refugees to Rwanda

Human rights groups have accused Rwanda's government of cracking down on perceived dissent, jailing critics, and pursuing repressive policies. The government denies the allegations.

"The primary purpose of this partnership is to provide legal status for people who live in this country," Doris Uwicyeza, chief technical advisor at Rwanda's ministry of justice, told reporters on Tuesday.

She added that once the migrants attain legal status, they will have the opportunity to apply for Rwandan citizenship, provided they fulfill the criteria for doing so.

"There is a clear path which will be communicated to them on how to become Rwandans."

Not all believe the government

"Rwandans are known for their hospitality. But the government of Rwanda does not respect human rights," Victoire Ingabire, leader of the Rwandan opposition movement, DALFA Umurinzi, which the authorities have so far refused to register as a party, told DW.

Moreover, the Rwandan government's assertion that it wishes to reintegrate African migrants in Rwanda has been met with skepticism.

"If it [the migrant deal] is being done on humanitarian grounds, then it is a big deal," Charles Ndushabandi, a Kigali resident, told DW. "The problem comes when the government is doing it for its political interests."

Rwandan journalist John Gahamanyi said given the country's difficult history — an estimated 800,000 people were killed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide against Tutsi that forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring countries — it is good for the government to help people in similar conditions that many Rwandans experienced before.

"It is also a sign of empathy," Gahamanyi told DW. "But if people don't want to come, there is no reason why the government should force them to live in places where they are not comfortable," he added.

"The first reason they left their countries is that they had problems there, so it's also good to respect their decisions."

Rwandan political analyst Gonza Muganwa pointed out that since there is a lot of money involved, the agreement will naturally "interest many people."

But that is not all. "The government is not saying so, but it seems obvious that it is looking for an alliance with the [British] conservative party and Britain in general," he told DW.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Analysts say President Paul Kagame is seeking to strengthen ties with European conservative governmentsImage: Presse- und Kommunikationsdienst der Präsidentschaft der DR Kongo

In Denmark, the right-leaning government is also seeking an agreement with Kigali on the relocation of refugees.

'Nothing to do' for refugees in Rwanda

Victoire Ingabire does not believe President Paul Kagame's claim that he wants to give refugees a chance to build a new life for themselves either.

She said the head of state should be more concerned about eradicating poverty in the country first. "As for these asylum-seekers, they will have no future in Rwanda, as the country is still rebuilding itself," she told DW.

Faisal, a 20-year-old Ethiopian, who has lived in the so-called transit center of Gashora ever since being relocated from Libya in 2019, agrees with Ingabire. ''I pray daily to God that I leave this place,'' he said, adding that he ''had nothing to do'' except playing football and drinking.

Migrants being apprehended by British police
There are doubts that the agreement will deter many migrants from trying to reach the UKImage: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

According to the government, Rwanda hosts more than 130,000 refugees and migrants from African nations and other countries such as Pakistan.

No chance to work

Last year, Kigali, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and the African Union extended a deal to relocate asylum-seekers in Libya to the East African country.

Hundreds of people previously sent to Rwanda have since been resettled in third countries, according to the UNHCR. 

Kelly Nimubona, a refugee who crossed the frontier directly from neighboring Burundi, said there was no way to survive in Rwanda without a job: ''We cannot afford to eat twice a day.'' At the same time, there was no chance of getting work, he said.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, the youth unemployment rate was nearly 24% by the end of 2021. 

Alex Ngarambe and Konstanze Fischer contributed to this report. 

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu