Rwanda is courting controversy a few weeks after it announced that it had entered into a partnership with the United Kingdom to host migrants claiming asylum there.
Under the proposed scheme, asylum seekers arriving on small boats across the channel from France will immediately be transferred to Rwanda, where their paperwork will be processed.
But the deal made public on April 14 continues to raise dust and, despite attempts by the UK and Rwanda to reassure critics that the policy seeks to save lives and deter human trafficking, the ultimate decision as to whether the UK will implement the signed memorandum of understanding will be determined in the courts of law.
For one thing, activists say the arrangement breaches the 1951 Refugee Convention, a United Nations treaty that stipulates that signatory states must not impose penalties on asylum seekers and refugees “on account of their illegal entry and presence.”
Last week, UK-based non-governmental organisations, including Freedom From Torture, which supports survivors of torture who are often asylum seekers and refugees, and Care4Calais and the Public and Commercial Services Union that represents most Border Force staff, wrote to the British Home Office requesting further information before taking the government to court.
Beyond the legal challenges, for Rwanda, the stakes are high, as questions linger about its motivation in the partnership. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), has urged the UK and Rwanda to reconsider the arrangement, citing concerns about increased risks from refugees seeking alternate routes and amplified pressure on frontline states.
Despite the scathing criticism, Rwanda is unbowed and maintains that it seeks to provide a humane solution to the global migration problem and that hosting refugees is an extension of Rwanda’s welcoming policy towards all migrants whether they are seeking refuge or opportunity.
Rwanda already hosts nearly 130,000 refugees from multiple countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Libya and Afghanistan.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has dismissed suggestions that his country was engaging in “trading human beings” as critics point to the $160 million pay cheque from the UK under the partnership and he reiterated that Rwanda is acting in good faith, as it had already taken refugees from countries such as Libya where they were being held in detention centres, and more recently from Afghanistan.
On April 26, President Kagame explained that he was forced to act from as early as 2018 during his chairmanship of the African Union after media reports revealed that many young Africans were dying in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe after being trafficked from Libya.
Rwanda’s action, he argued, is motivated by its values.
“There are things you cannot buy about us… We are not involved in buying and selling people …it is just a problem…people will have different views about it but at the end of the day, you have got to do something,” President Kagame told diplomats accredited to Rwanda during their annual dinner in Kigali.
But it is not just Kigali’s critics who are opposed to the arrangement. Some of its allies too are also against it, arguing that Rwanda should not allow itself to be “dragged in the mud” by a rich country evading responsibility.
“The criticism is focused on the UK, but it also affects Rwanda by association. The arrangement is not worth all the trouble it is causing to Rwanda as a brand,” a retired foreign diplomat who didn’t wish to be named told The EastAfrican.
“On the one hand, the Rwandan government is paying a football team to encourage people to visit Rwanda, on the other, some people are being deported to Rwanda. This creates confusion,” the diplomat said, adding that if the arrangement is thrown out by the UK courts, it will hurt Rwanda’s image as a progressive African country.
Andrew Mitchell, UK’s MP for Sutton Coldfield and a former International Development Secretary who is regarded as “a friend of Rwanda,” says his government’s plan with Rwanda will be impractical, ineffective, and expensive.
“There is a better and more humane way of tackling the smugglers' sordid and vile business model. Trying to bundle people indiscriminately onto planes for central Africa is a breach of our international undertakings, bad for our country’s and the Conservative Party’s reputation, eye-wateringly expensive, and mostly unlikely to achieve its aim,” said Mr Mitchell.