UK asylum deal: Is Rwanda a land of safety or fear?

A road in Kigali, Rwanda

A road in Kigali, Rwanda

Visitors to Rwanda are often blown away to find a country where things seem to work efficiently. It is neat and tidy with lush green views – and the wi-fi is good in the capital, Kigali.

Everyone tends to pay their taxes; services are reliable; the roads are safe – the government calls it “one of the world’s safest nations”.

Take the pandemic for example. Rwanda did not hesitate to take coronavirus by the horns: lockdowns were implemented quickly and enforced strictly. Today more than 60% of the population is vaccinated – something the British Medical Journal calls a feat “in a continent that is a Covid-19 vaccine desert”.

But underlying this compliance and Kigali’s landscaped flower beds is a collective fear.

Walk into a bar and try to start up a controversial debate, and you will be shut down – and there is every likelihood your behaviour will be reported to the authorities.

People holding beer bottles

Spying on neighbours is common in Rwanda – even in bars

Those deemed a real threat will be dealt with harshly.

“It does looks like the Switzerland of Africa but it is an extremely repressive and frightening country,” Michela Wrong, author of a recent book on Rwanda called Do Not Disturb, told the BBC.

On the last Saturday of every month, everyone gets together in their neighbourhoods to do a collective clean-up – roads are swept, rubbish collected. It is called Umuganda, which in Kinyarwanda means “Community Work”.

One Rwandan, who asked not to be named, explains there is no law that forces people to attend the Umuganda – but there is a fear you will gain a reputation, that someone will report you, that your name will be logged as a troublemaker.

Driving school and languages classes

Any camp that asylum seekers are sent to under the new UK deal is likely to be a well-organised affair – not the refugee camps you sometimes see with tents or plastic sheeting tacked on to thorns.

The country, which has a population of 13 million, has already taken in more than 900 African asylum seekers from Libya since 2019 – under a deal with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the African Union (AU).

People at the UN-run Gashora site in Rwanda 2019

The UN-run Gashora site has permanent structures – and many of those who have come from Libya have moved on

They have been housed at Gashora, about 60km (40 miles) from Kigali. The UNHCR says it is not a refugee camp, but an Emergency Transit Mechanism – and more than half of them have already been relocated to Sweden, Canada, Norway, France, and Belgium.

The UN site, which has permanent structures, aims to teach those who suffered appalling conditions in Libyan camps, the skills to help them in their new life. The camp has a driving school and offers language classes, amongst other things.

But when Denmark announced last year that was planning a similar deal to the one the UK has just launched, the AU hit out.

“Such attempts to stem out migration from Africa to Europe is xenophobic and completely unacceptable,” it said last August.

Africa already shouldered 85% of the world’s refugees “often in protracted situations, whereas only 15% are hosted by developed countries”, it said.

Wrong called it a “cynical and amoral deal”.

“It’s all about sending a deterrent to asylum seekers… anyone who is trying to flee repression in Africa is going to be horrified at being sent to Rwanda,” she said.

Unlike the UNHCR project, details being released of the UK scheme suggest asylum seekers would be in Rwanda for longer – “so that they can resettle and thrive”, as the home secretary put it.

It is not clear how many people Rwanda is expecting to accept, given it is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa but UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would take “tens of thousands in the years ahead”.

Out of Kigali, Wrong says it is a “poor agrarian society where every inch of fertile land is being cultivated and which doesn’t really have room to take refugees”.

YouTubers prosecuted

No-one expects much opposition at home to the move – as critics of 64-year-old Paul Kagame, who led the rebel forces which ended the 1994 genocide and has been president since 2000, tend to regret it.

Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a report about the prosecution over the last year of at least eight YouTubers considered to be critical of the government. One, who filmed and criticised soldiers forcefully expelling residents during a slum clearance, has been sentenced to seven years in jail.

Critics who flee the country have been pursued and assassinated by Rwandan agents in exile – or in the case of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved the lives of more than 1,000 people during the genocide and on which the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda was based, put on trial.

Paul Rusesabagina in 2021

Paul Rusesabagina, who was played by Don Cheadle in the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, is serving a 25-year sentence

After the genocide – in which 800,000 people were killed – Rusesabagina became a Belgian citizen and used his fame to speak out against what he said was President Kagame’s repressive rule.

But in 2020, his family says he was abducted while passing through Dubai and taken to Rwanda and has been convicted to 25 years in jail for backing a rebel group.

His daughter, Carine Kanimba, told the BBC it showed Rwanda had zero respect for human rights: “Rwanda is a dictatorship, there is no freedom of speech, there is no democracy. In the last election the president won the elections by 99%, which tells you this is not a democracy.

“I don’t understand why the British government would decide to send vulnerable people to a country that is known to oppress its own people.”

A Conservative love affair

The reason perhaps lies at the door of Mr Kagame, who stands more than 6ft, is a charismatic, Arsenal football club-loving, driven man. Many Western leaders – those who may feel the guilt of not doing more to stop the genocide that defines Rwanda for many outsiders – are enamoured by him.

President Paul Kagame visits the Gahanga Cricket Oval, during the official inauguration, on 28 October 2017

President Kagame was at the official opening of the Kicukiro Oval in 2017

“He’s very good at identifying the issues that keep Western leaders awake at night and presenting them with a solution which seems to be effective and cut-price,” says Wrong, pointing to how Rwandan troops were sent to Mozambique last year to deal with a jihadist insurgency.

Last year, Mr Kagame said he was offering refugee centres on “humanitarian grounds”. One of Rwanda’s few opposition parties has said it is all about money.

Western nations are impressed by Rwanda’s rapid economic development since the genocide and by the fact corruption appears not to be an issue – though donors do issue human rights warnings.

The UK Conservative party’s love affair with Rwanda started in 2007, while in opposition, with something called Project Umubano, founded by Andrew Mitchell.

The former development minister organised for MPs to fly out each August to work on development projects – and coach cricket.

A cricket charity linked to the project began raising funds and a few years ago the state-of the art Gahanga Cricket Stadium, also known as the Kicukiro Oval, was opened just outside Kigali.

Some see the asylum-seeker deal as part of a sophisticated strategy to improve Rwanda’s image, as the country gears up to host the Commonwealth summit this June.

But Rwanda’s government spokesperson dismissed its critics, saying no-one was persecuted in Rwanda for having an opinion

“We know the kind of situations that people from countries like that have been through and this is a place where they will be safe, they will be protected and can live dignified lives and have an opportunity to develop their talents,” Yolande Makolo told the BBC.

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