While the UK perceives migration as a problem, human rights activists from Africa and the African Union disagree

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets President of Rwanda Paul Kagame for a bilateral meeting at 10 Downing Street, London, May 4, 2023. Photo by Simon Dawson/Number 10 on Flickr (CC BY 4.0 DEED)

On April 14, the United Kingdom (UK) and Rwanda inked a controversial deal to relocate certain asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda. The deal involves sending some asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda for processing and possible settlement.

The motivation behind this agreement is that the number of illegal immigrants arriving by small boats spiked from around 8,500 in 2020, 28,000 in 2021 to 45,000 in 2022, and the government believes that implementing this policy will discourage people from using these “illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods to enter the UK,” including using small boats to cross the English Channel.

However, this arrangement drew scrutiny not only from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but also from British opposition politicians who labeled it as unworkable and inhumane. In November, the UK Supreme Court ruled against the plan:

In an interview with CGTN Africa, Alain Mukurarinda, the Rwandan government's deputy spokesperson, clarified Rwanda's acceptance of the deal as a commitment to addressing the migrant crisis. He emphasized that Rwanda, drawing on its experience in welcoming migrants, is a secure country capable of providing a minimum quality of life. 

However, in 2020, the UNHCR submitted a report to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process regarding Rwanda's asylum process. The UNHCR expressed concerns, including the arbitrary denial of access to asylum procedures for some people, the risk of detention and deportation of undocumented asylum seekers, the discriminatory access to asylum procedures that LGBTIQ+ individuals face, and the lack of legal representation.

Mukurarinda highlighted the fact that the UK government would fund the asylum program, with the funds intended for the relocation of the asylees. Recent reports indicate that the UK has paid 100 million pounds (USD 126 million) this year on top of 140 million pounds (USD 176 million) paid last year, even though no asylum seekers have been sent from the UK to Rwanda because of delays caused by legal challenges.

This isn't the first instance of such a deal. In a YouTube video by CGTN Africa, Achieng Akena, the executive director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, commented on the externalization of asylum processes, citing cases like the United States sending Afghans to Uganda and Denmark attempting a similar deal with Rwanda. According to Achieng, the African Union criticized this process as xenophobic and wholly unacceptable. She said the fact that this was a secret deal that was made between governments without consultation of the people contradicts the ideals of Pan-Africanism and what Africans are striving to achieve as a people-centered continent.

Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, expressed skepticism about the deal's success in the same YouTube video:

It didn't work in Australia. Australia tried to implement this type of program, and it had abysmal consequences in terms of people's human rights being completely trampled on.

The reception of this deal varies among different organizations and individuals in Africa. While some find no fault with it, others strongly oppose it.

According to UNHCR, 85 percent of the world's refugees are already hosted in developing countries. Rwanda alone accommodates about 130,000 refugees, with 91 percent living in camps. In the CGTN Africa video, Gatete Nyiringabo Ruhumuliza, a human rights lawyer and independent political analyst, gave his perspective on Rwanda's capacity to absorb refugees, stating:

Migrants are not a problem for us. It's not about our capacity to absorb them; it's about tapping into their strength and skills. These are resilient individuals who have crossed rivers, deserts, and war zones. We stand to benefit from them. In fact, we should be receiving payment from the UK for them to send us new human beings.

Regarding the benefits for asylum seekers, Lewis believes the deal won't benefit those seeking to go to the UK. He argues that those who reach the UK have the right to have their refugee and asylum cases heard there, and if their reasons are credible, asylum should be granted.

Lewis and Achieng contend that the UK is using this plan to shirk its responsibility of providing asylum. They view the deal negatively, citing concerns about Rwanda's safety, pointing to a troubling human rights record, and questioning the credibility of the UK's endorsement of Rwanda as a safe haven.

Achieng argues that if the deal were genuinely positive, the decision wouldn't have been made in secrecy without public participation. She emphasizes the lack of clarity on the rights of relocated individuals in Rwanda, criticizing the absence of information about applying clear procedures and rights protections that are available in the UK but may not be in the destination country. She deems this unacceptable, xenophobic, and racist.

While the UK and Rwanda perceive migration of Africans as a problem, Achieng and the African Union disagree. Achieng highlights that the number of Africans migrating to Europe is minimal compared to intracontinental and Asian migration. According to Achieng, the African Union's response has been to improve legal migration across Africa and adopt a freedom of movement protocol, a process still underway.

The UNHCR reported that as of 2022, over 108 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order. Whether this controversial policy will effectively address the migrant crisis without undermining refugee rights remains to be seen.

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