Analysis: Rwanda-UK asylum deal may cause regional refugee crisis

Later today, eight asylum seekers will get on a chartered flight heading to Rwanda from the United Kingdom, as part of a controversial £120m deal between both countries.

According to the UK Home Office, the deal, signed in April, is “designed to disincentivise dangerous and unnecessary journeys such as small boat crossings, save lives and prevent injuries”, and ultimately fix the UK’s immigration system.

Since the deal was announced, there have been protests and legal attempts to stop the first deportation, as well as criticism from multiple nonprofits.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the charity was “appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision”. UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said the UK was “exporting its responsibility to another country”.

During his Easter sermon, Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, said there were “serious ethical questions about sending asylum seekers overseas”. British media report that Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has privately called the deal “appalling”.

By way of response, Rwandan foreign affairs minister Vincent Biruta said his country had a responsibility to cater to refugees.

“This partnership builds on Rwanda’s strong record of providing safety to those fleeing danger, with our country currently providing sanctuary to over 130,000 refugees from multiple countries – including vulnerable migrants evacuated from Libya, Afghanistan and neighbours like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi,” he said, during a recent trip to the UK.

A landlocked republic smudged within east and central Africa, Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in the world; it is the same size as Macedonia but has six times the population. Despite recent economic gains, more than half of its estimated 13 million people live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Activists say this is proof that Rwanda is ill-suited to host the new arrivals and that an inflow of asylum seekers from the UK could even lead to the displacement of its citizens into the wider region.

‘Terrifying past and future’

On April 20, 12 UK-based nonprofits run by Congolese nationals in the Diaspora sent a private letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemning the ​​UK’s decision as one “based on the crisis of responsibility and not a crisis of refugees”.

In the letter seen by Al Jazeera, they warned that Rwanda did not have enough space to accommodate the asylum seekers but was intent on getting British taxpayers’ money to propagate a war in the eastern DRC.

It would essentially be a repeat of history, they added, where thousands could cross the borders from tiny Rwanda into larger Uganda or the vast landmass of the eastern DRC and further escalate the crisis there.

A representative of one of the letter’s signatories, London-based The African Physical Training Organization (APTO), told Al Jazeera that there could be a spillover that “replicate[s] the 1994 refugee crisis where we saw millions of Rwandan Hutu refugees flood the eastern DRC to run away from the new Tutsi-led government in Rwanda”.

According to the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, some of these refugees were génocidaires of Hutu ethnicity including members of the infamous Interahamwe group. In the DRC, they formed armed groups, leading to the rise of opposing groups comprising Tutsis – the other main Rwandan ethnicity – as well as other opportunistic rebels.

Under the then head of state Mobutu Sese Seko, the DRC was unable to control these armed groups, some of which directly threatened populations in neighbouring countries. So civil war eventually broke out.

In 1997, he fled the country as rebels led by his eventual successor Laurent Kabila advanced on the capital.

Many of these groups are still in operation today, especially in the Ituri, Kasai, and Kivu provinces of eastern Congo. The Tutsi-majority M23 and the predominantly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) are the deadliest.

Despite the presence of more than 16,000 UN peacekeepers, these groups continue to inflict horror on communities and control territory in some areas. The United Nations estimates there are currently 4.5 million internally displaced people within the DRC and more than 800,000 people have fled the country to be refugees elsewhere.

This June, the Norwegian Refugee Council named the conflict in the DRC as the world’s most neglected displacement crisis, for the second year running – as global attention shifts to the war in Ukraine.

“For years the Great Lakes region [across parts of East, Central and Southern Africa] has seen thousands of refugees, millions have died in DRC and the region,” Carine Kanimba, daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, the imprisoned Rwandan activist who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, told Al Jazeera.

In recent weeks, Kinshasa has also accused Kigali of actively supporting the M23 rebels, who have been waging their most sustained offensive in eastern DRC since capturing vast swaths of territory there in 2012-13.

“Today, it’s clear, there is no doubt, Rwanda has supported the M23 to come and attack the DRC”, President Felix Tshisekedi said in June on state television.

And activists in Kinshasa have led an anti-Rwanda protest this month too.

For activists in Europe, the asylum deal could be a sign of the West helping Kagame’s policies.

“We also believe this could be tied to Rwanda’s ambition to get territories in Congo,” the APTO representative said. “We are suspicious – why not give responsibility to Europe?”

‘A ruthless dictatorship’

Despite its acclaimed efforts at national reconciliation and healing after the genocide, Rwandan authorities have also been accused of human rights abuses by several civil society groups within and beyond Africa.

Critics say Western donors and organisations have ignored this and continue to support Kagame’s government because it has managed to restore stability after the genocide.

“People are not free to express themselves on anything that might be seen as challenging the government or what it says,” Lewis Mudge, Human Rights Watch’s Central Africa director, told Al Jazeera in April.

Since October 2021, at least eight members and supporters of opposition leader Victoire Ingabire have been arrested on charges ranging from spreading rumours, forming criminal associations and inciting insurrection.

“My father is a political prisoner in Rwanda because he criticised a ruthless dictatorship with the same president for 28 years,” Kanimba told Al Jazeera. “Our work has been about showing the international community what is truly happening in Rwanda. These are conditions that lead to political prisoners, arbitrary killings and silencing of journalists and critics. These are the conditions that create refugees that have to flee that country because their lives are at risk.”

The current UK deal is one that ties into that increasing culture of impunity, analysts say. Refugees from the region say that as more asylum seekers get assigned to Rwanda and Kagame gets more money from the deal, he will be able to sustain a climate of fear.

The asylum deal, Kanimba said, could lead to “more refugees and more suffering of innocent people that the world seems to have forgotten about”.

Another UK-based Rwandan refugee who chose to remain anonymous, agreed.

“The partnership agreement between the UK and Rwanda is an insult to the Rwandan people,” she said. “It is a misrepresentation of the generosity of British citizens and a shifting of responsibility to a smaller and poor country, with its own terrifying past and future.”

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