UK-Rwanda refugee deal provokes protests and plaudits

A deal to relocate asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda has caused widespread controversy. But some African voices welcome its promise of human development.


Image : Simon WOHLFAHRT

Talks on a deal to deport asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Zambia are underway, a source in the Zambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told African Business.

The potential deal mirrors one signed by the UK and Rwanda in April to relocate migrants arriving by “irregular” means on British shores to the East African nation, where their asylum applications will be processed.

In return, the UK will pay £120m ($145m)  in funding to Rwanda and the processing and integration costs for each relocated person. Those deported in this way will not be eligible to return to the UK.

UK officials and their Zambian counterparts are waiting to see how the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership unfolds, the source said.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel (L), and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Vincent Biruta, shake hands after signing an agreement at Kigali Convention Center, Kigali, Rwanda on April 14, 2022.
British home secretary Priti Patel (L) and Rwandan minister of foreign affairs and International cooperation Vincent Biruta shake hands after signing an agreement at Kigali Convention on April 14, 2022.

Towards a new trend in refugee policy?

The deportation policy has sparked an international outcry, while protesters have rallied against the plan at detention centres across the UK.

But the deal may signal a new trend in global refugee policy prompted by a rising wave in immigration from the developing world to Europe, according to some experts.

According to official data, “irregular” entries into the UK rose in 2021 to 35,000, with the majority (28,526) arriving by boat. The previous year, immigration of this kind was estimated at 8,404, and under 2,000 in 2019.

“This is where the trend is going on a permanent basis,” says Sugzo McBride Dzekedzeke, an immigration attorney and former lecturer in international refugee law at the University of Zambia.

With the growing divide between the Global North and South driving migratory pressures in the developing world and anti-immigrant feeling rising in a number of Europe countries, policymakers are looking for ways to manage the crisis, says Teresa Nogueira Pinto, an African affairs expert from Lichtenstein-based think-tank GIS Reports.

“These include offshoring the management of asylum requests and, generally, of illegal migration flows,” she says.

“In this context, the deal between the UK and Rwanda – two countries that sit 4,000 miles apart – could become a source of inspiration for other states struggling with rising migratory pressures.”

Britain’s Home Office, which currently spends £4.7m a day housing asylum seekers in hotels, hopes the deal with Rwanda will deter migrants from attempting to enter the UK by crossing the Channel from France in often unseaworthy boats.

The UK and Rwandan governments are also promoting the arrangement to UN agencies and other countries as an innovative solution for a “broken” international refugee protection regime, a recent House of Commons research briefing says.

In April, it emerged that Denmark was in talks with Rwanda about setting up a new procedure for transferring asylum seekers to the East African nation. Such a move would go against EU rules, but Denmark has opted out of most of Europe’s asylum legislation.

Israel-Rwanda deal

A bilateral deal to relocate migrants from one country to Rwanda is nothing new.

Around 4,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers were sent to Rwanda and Uganda from Israel between 2013 and 2018, as part of a secret deal.

Migrant testimonies collected by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) suggest that the removals were not voluntary and that when they arrived the refugees did not receive good treatment.

One migrant testified to having his asylum permit revoked after four years in Israel, and being given a choice to be sent home, be transferred to a migrant detention facility, or take $3,500 and a one-way flight to Rwanda.

When they arrived in Rwanda the refugees were not given legal status as originally promised and were unable to find work, according to the IRRI report, raising questions over whether Rwanda is in fact a suitable location for resettlement.

“Most of the refugees who travelled to Rwanda seemed to have left the country almost immediately for Uganda by paying local smugglers, either because they had no intention of staying in Kigali in the first place or because once there they understood that staying wasn’t really an option,” the report said.

International outcry was ‘insult to Rwanda’

The refugees will be housed in the Hope Hostel, a renovated 50-room budget hotel nestled in the outskirts of the capital. 

The guest house is equipped with self-contained rooms with sofas, a bed and a television, and the facility reportedly has Wi-Fi, computers and basketball courts.

“It’s not five-star but I would sleep in that place myself, and I’m a lawyer in Kigali,” says Gatete Nyiringabo, an attorney and a governance and advocacy consultant in Kigali.

The international outcry sparked by the deal was an insult to Rwanda, and the role it plays as a safe-haven to refugees from across Africa, he says.

The UK media painted the country as “some kind of dystopian hell where people are coming to die,” he says.

“From a Rwandan standpoint we are performing a humanitarian act. Yet we were receiving daily abuse in the British media.  

“It’s fair to campaign against the deportation of migrants. But I don’t think it’s constructive to do it at the expense of the receiving country just to make your point. That’s no longer activism, it becomes racism.”

Rwanda has been welcoming refugees for over two decades. According to the UN Refugee Agency, it currently hosts 120,780 refugees and asylum seekers, including 82,501 from Democratic Republic of Congo and 25,000 from Burundi.        

Lusaka lawyer Sugzo McBride Dzekedzeke concedes that the living standards of refugees in Zambia and Rwanda may not match those of the UK due to widespread poverty in the two African countries. But that isn’t the point, he says.

“A refugee is looking for a safe place. So if Rwanda is safe, then it’s good for a refugee. Why should they insist on being in London or New York when all they are looking for is safety?

“I also think it is good for growing the economy because these people are bringing diverse skills. And integration is good for human development.”

Bringing skills to Rwanda

Rwanda is often painted as an African success story and an example of the continent’s renaissance.

The country’s recovery from Covid-19 is strong, with its GDP climbing back to pre-pandemic levels at 3.5-4% in 2022, according to the World Bank.

President Paul Kagame, himself a former refugee, has come a long way in shaping the country’s reputation and banishing the spectres of the Rwandan genocide, one of the most horrific massacres of the 20th century, where as many as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

Despite outcry in the West, the deal can be seen as a way of bringing back the skills needed for the country to escape poverty, Nyiringabo says.

“People think migrants didn’t go to school, but for one to be able to afford to travel to the West they have to have financial means.

“We have quite a strong brain drain of people leaving Africa, because migration has been politicised. I think it is a good thing that people come back to Africa, because it brings diversity and, who knows, they might be the next Elon Musk.”

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