What will the future hold for refugees offshored to Rwanda?
The European Court of Human Rights’ halting of the first scheduled flight to Rwanda at the eleventh hour is staggeringly embarrassing for Priti Patel’s derided scheme that flies in the face of governing international agreements to protect refugees.
Yvette Cooper’s perfectly articulated deconstruction of the scheme two days ago encapsulated the growing public sentiment against it. This view has been matched by those in high offices, with Prince Charles recently, albeit privately, describing the scheme as ‘appalling’ and his critique being promptly, and predictably rebuked by Nigel Farage.
Considering the currency in which Farage built his political career, it is little surprise that he would go to bat for a policy that washes its hands of the UK’s international mandated responsibility towards refugees.
Central to the criticism of the scheme is that the UK government’s funds will be provided to a Rwandan government that engages in political repression, including assassinations and abductions taking place on foreign soil, as well as an increasing crackdown on freedom of expression at home.
Despite the deeply problematic history of contributing to the destabilisation of security of its neighbours, the Home Office has continued to justify that the scheme is fair because Rwanda has previously welcomed migrants and has the ability to offer “a home, stability, and a future for those in need.”
From the Rwandan side there has been an effort to assuage fears that it is not a suitable place of resettlement, with a Kigali spokesperson declaring that the asylum seekers have an opportunity to live ‘decent lives.’
''For those refugees who have taken the chance to move out of the camps in Rwanda, the situation is similarly difficult as they voluntarily sign off from the meagre UN support to try and make living. One of the men I spoke to explained that the norm for non-camp refugees is to “go without meals, barely eating throughout the day and week.”''
The ECHR’s decision was rooted in the UK’s “decision to treat Rwanda as a safe third country was irrational or based on insufficient enquiry.”
Last month in Kigali, I sat down with three Burundian refugees (who make up 40% of the country’s refugee population) to see what kind of life might await those who arrive to Rwanda. The three men, not wishing to be identified, fled Burundi’s political crisis in 2015 and have found relative safety and security throughout their stay: “Rwanda is much safer and cleaner than Burundi and other countries.”
Unlike other Africans who have been denied the opportunity to apply for asylum in Rwanda after deportation to the country from Israel, the circumstances of the three men was much more positive. They outlined that they faced little restrictions to their active participation in the state, including eased labour practices and the ability to start businesses.
The experience of these men, who fled a “sister state”, as it was described to me, had several favourable factors aiding their integration, including a shared ethnicity, culture and similar language.
However, Rwanda remains one of the poorest countries in the world and poverty has only increased following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Considering that Rwanda is already playing host to some 126,271 registered refugees, the long-term outlook for those living in camps is dire, with the UNHCR contribution for living costs to each inhabitant totalling just under 8 dollars per month. Camps, while permanent structures, are old and often encounter basic infrastructure issues like the lack of constant running water.
Work is extremely limited for those who live there, and as the men described to me, only manual labour is available to young men. For older camp dwellers, their exist almost no options for gainful employment and they rely on the assistance of family members just to live. As one man put it - in the starkest of ways: “Camp refugees are simply only looking for dignity.”
For those refugees who have taken the chance to move out of the camps, the situation is similarly difficult as they voluntarily sign off from the meagre UN support to try and make living. One of the men I spoke to explained that the norm for non-camp refugees is to “go without meals, barely eating throughout the day and week.”
Despite the men I interviewed describing themselves as lucky in comparison to other non-camp refugees, they paint a very bleak picture of the opportunities in the country, with refugee children often needing scholarships from non-governmental organisations to attend university.
Surprisingly, despite the economic growth of Rwanda, one of the men explained that “there are not many ways to find work here, even in Burundi you could find more opportunities.”
In response to my question about the future, the group answered bluntly: “What future? The only future we have is try and find a way to leave, there is no future or life you can get here.”
The hope that the UK’s grant of 120 million will help improve conditions of those who are offshored, however, there are no plans for any oversight of the initial pledge. In reality the grant has only served to provide a public relations boost to President Paul Kagame within western policy circles, further strengthening a carefully crafted reputation.
For Burundian refugees in Rwanda who are seeking to leave, they outlined that newcomers from the UK might push them further to the back of the line for third party resettlement, a process to which they have little recourse: “The process is secretive, unless you are sick and the UN moves you, we don’t know how to get out, we have seen Libyans who came get resettled quickly, but not us.”
This further underlines just how detrimental the UK scheme is. It is likely further undermining the opportunities being sought out by refugees already in Rwanda.
There is no justifiable or practical reason why asylum seekers are better off absorbed in one of the poorest and densely populated countries in the world with an existent refugee population that is struggling to make ends meet. No to mention to a state that has an increasingly poor human rights record and plays a key role in the instability of its neighbours.
The scheme is an abject moral and policy failure that will make the future of everyone in Rwanda even more precarious.
Dr Drew Mikhael is scholar on forced displacement and has conducted research with asylum seekers, migrants and refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, East Africa and Europe.
Follow him on Twitter: @DrDrewMikhael
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