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Dhaka Tribune

Rwanda: From politics to human rights to migration

  • UK passed a bill allowing to send irregular asylum seekers to Rwanda
  • Rwanda’s government says it is ‘pleased’ about UK’s decision 
Update : 24 Apr 2024, 04:52 PM

Rwanda's government says it is "pleased" about the UK's decision to pass a bill allowing to send irregular asylum seekers to the African country. But many, including the UN, continue to express concern about the policy.

What are the reactions to the Rwanda bill?

With the final passing of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act after a long marathon between the two houses of parliament in the UK, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that deportation flights of asylum seekers to the small African nation would start in the coming weeks.

“We are ready, plans are in place and these flights will go, come what may,” Sunak said at a press conference.

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo meanwhile said on Tuesday that Kigali was also “pleased” to learn about the UK decision to pass a bill allowing irregular immigrants in the country to be sent to the African country for processing and, if they succeed, for relocation.

According to Makolo, the government is looking forward to “welcoming those relocated to Rwanda.”

But top UN officials, including UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, have criticized London’s plans, warning that this could establish a “dangerous precedent.”

According to media reports, not everyone is enthused about the development in Kigali, either.

The opposition United Democratic Forces of Rwanda (UDF) party expressed concerns about the bill, as have various human rights organizations on the ground.

While some believe that the country’s economy will benefit from the policy, with the UK paying Rwanda a reported around $460 million over five years at the very least, others are worried that there won’t be enough jobs to go around for everyone.

How did the Rwanda deal come about and what will it achieve?

The idea of the Rwanda bill was first introduced by former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2022, and has since been carried forward by two other prime ministers and as many Home Secretaries.

The bill is part of the UK’s strict approach to irregular immigration since its departure from the European Union (EU), commonly referred to as Brexit.

Incumbent Prime Minister Rishi Sunak extended the Rwanda plan into his “Stop the Boats” policy, which is intended to curb the number of irregular migrant arrivals on British shores departing from the north of France and Belgium.

According to Sunak, relocating irregular asylum seekers to Rwanda will help end the business model of people smugglers bringing migrants and refugees to Europe.

However, despite the shadow of the Rwanda policy looming large for two years, the numbers of migrant arrivals on the UK’s coast have only skyrocketed; more than 6,250 people have reached the UK by crossing the English Channel in boats so far this year, according to UK government statistics.

In 2023, there were at least 12 fatalities on this route, which is considered to be among the most dangerous in the world.

Why did it take so long to sign the bill?

The enactment of policy ran into multiple legal hurdles in the past two years, with the country’s Supreme Court deciding last year that Rwanda cannot be regarded as a safe country to send asylum seekers to.

The lower house of parliament, the House of Commons, responded to that decision, launching a bill to essentially reclassify why Rwanda could be deemed safe. That bill went back and forth between the commons and the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, for months in a process known in the UK as “political ping-pong.”

The final shape of the document that was eventually passed this week includes some amendments from the Lords, though ultimately represents the government’s original design.

Many regard the bill as an attempt by the ruling Conservative Party to increase their votes in the upcoming UK general elections, which are expected to take place in October. But with or without the policy, the Conservative Party is almost guaranteed to lose its majority, according to recent polls

What is Rwanda’s government like?

President Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) have ruled Rwanda, a small East African nation dominated by rugged mountains and fertile plains, since the end of the 1994 genocide.

On paper, the country is a multiparty democracy. But political opposition is “nonexistent,” as the US development agency USAID puts it.

Kagame’s three election victories have been plagued by numerous and credible accusations of irregularities, including vote rigging and intimidation. Officially, he won the 2017 presidency with 99% of the vote.

The nation is designated an “electoral autocracy” by the Varieties of Democracy Project, an international democracy database. And it earned only eight out of 40 possible points for political rights in the 2023 Freedom in the World report.

What about other rights and freedoms in Rwanda?

Rwanda has ratified international and regional instruments guaranteeing human rights, which are also anchored in its constitution and other national laws.

But several observers have identified significant rights issues in Rwanda, including extrajudicial killings, people being disappeared by the government and torture of dissenters.

This has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association by perpetuating “a culture of intolerance of dissent,” finds Human Rights Watch.

As for media freedom, “beaten down by decades of oppression, the Rwandan media landscape is one of the poorest in Africa,” says Reporter without Borders, which ranks the country 131 out of 180 on its 2023 press freedom index.

What about Rwanda’s economy?

In 1994, Kagame inherited a nation torn apart by the genocide that saw a million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered in just 100 days, and destroyed Rwanda’s economy.

Rwanda’s economy still depends on subsistence agriculture and lacks the rich natural resources of many of its neighbors.

But reform-minded Kagame has steered Rwanda to strong economic growth and “substantial improvements” in living standards, according to the World Bank. GDP soared by 142% from 2000 to 2020 and the number of people living under the poverty line fell to 52% by 2016-17. The country cut maternal and child mortality, and its 13 million people now are among the longest-living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ranked one of the least corrupt nations in Africa, Rwanda has also climbed 100 places in the past decade for the ease of doing business, to second on the continent.

Rwanda is below average, however, compared to other low-income African countries when it comes to private investment, which is hindered by factors such as the low-skilled workforce, its landlocked position and the high price of electricity.

Why is Rwanda beloved by Western powers?

With its stability and low corruption, Rwanda has become an aid “darling,” receiving $1 billion a year— the most donor aid per capita in East Africa.

“It’s the country that illustrates how development aid has been effectively used if all you’re looking at is things like clean roads and nice fancy buildings … but not paying attention to peace and security, its role in regional politics and, indeed, human rights,” said Toni Haastrup, who holds the Chair in Global Politics at the UK’s University of Manchester.

What is the situation like for refugees in Rwanda?

It’s a mixed bag.

Rwanda hosts nearly 135,000 refugees, mainly from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not forced to live in a camp like in many other nations, they enjoy freedom of movement and have the right to work, own property, register businesses and open bank accounts.

Rwanda’s “economic inclusion” refugee policies “stand out as a model with lessons learned for East Africa and beyond,” finds a 2023 report by Refugees International.

Despite this, refugees in Rwanda face prejudice and discrimination and most refugees are chronically poor. The vast majority (93%) live in camps and rely on a meager cash assistance of $7.94 a month to buy food.

Burundian refugee Kelly Nimubona told DW last year that life was tough in Rwanda. ‘‘We can’t afford to eat twice a day,” he said, adding that there was no chance of getting work.

As well as the poverty, rights organizations say Rwanda’s human rights record makes it no country for refugees.

Tellingly, the UK Supreme Court ruled in November that asylum seekers wouldn’t be safe in Rwanda.

Why is Rwanda positioning itself as a safe haven for international refugees?

Last month, Rwanda received a new batch of refugees evacuated from Libya’s notorious detention centers under a UNHCR partnership.

The country was also part of a now defunct and controversial policy to receive rejected asylum seekers from Israel. More recently, Rwanda signed agreements with the UK and Denmark to process asylum seekers, although either nation has yet to send any migrants.

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo told local news site KT Press that Rwanda kept an open policy for refugees because people in the country know “what it is to be on the move, or to be displaced, just because of the history of our country.”

But for global politics expert Toni Haastrup, Rwanda’s refugee policy serves another purpose.

“It’s a way of legitimating Rwanda within the international community,” she told DW. “You’re not going to scold Rwanda in global politics if it’s been accepting all of these refugees on your behalf.”

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