Explained | Why has densely populated Rwanda agreed to the U.K.’s plan to deport migrants?

Understanding what the U.K.’s immigration policy to deport asylum seekers means for Rwanda, and examining the African nation’s ability to host refugees. 

Updated - May 09, 2024 12:12 pm IST

Published - May 06, 2024 05:21 pm IST

File photo of a person holding up a placard during a protest against the U.K. government’s policy to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, at an immigration removal centre beside Gatwick Airport, south of London on June 12, 2022.

File photo of a person holding up a placard during a protest against the U.K. government’s policy to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, at an immigration removal centre beside Gatwick Airport, south of London on June 12, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: Last week, the British authorities deported an asylum seeker to Rwanda under a voluntary returns scheme and started detaining other migrants in the country in preparation for deportations to the East African nation by July as part of a separate contentious immigration law passed by the United Kingdom Parliament last month.

The U.K. struck a deal with Rwanda in April 2022 to address issues related to undocumented migration and rising anti-immigrant sentiment. The relocation policy faced major legal and political challenges, with the Supreme Court declaring it unlawful and deeming Rwanda an unsafe country for asylum seekers.

In response, the Conservative government finalised a new agreement with Rwanda to ensure additional safeguards and introduced a new Bill to declare Rwanda a “safe third country” for asylum seekers. A flagship scheme of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the legislation allows the British authorities to remove asylum seekers who have made “unauthorised journeys” since January 1, 2022, to 6,500 km away to Rwanda for processing of asylum claims.

Rwanda is one of the most densely populated African countries, with a poor human rights record and an inadequate asylum system. In this context, critics have voiced concerns about the risks associated with transferring asylum seekers without adequate safeguards, cautioning that the policy may not effectively address issues of human trafficking and dangerous boat crossings. The impoverished African nation, however, maintains that it can accommodate the influx of as many migrants as Britain sends its way.

Britain’s Priti Patel and Rwanda’s Vincent Beirut after signing an agreement on asylum-seekers, at Kigali Convention Center, Kigali, Rwanda on April 14, 2022.

Britain’s Priti Patel and Rwanda’s Vincent Beirut after signing an agreement on asylum-seekers, at Kigali Convention Center, Kigali, Rwanda on April 14, 2022. | Photo Credit: SIMON WOHLFAHRT

Also Read | What is the new U.K. policy on refugees? 

How did the U.K. facilitate the deportation of a failed asylum seeker to Rwanda?

The Voluntary Returns Scheme, under which a migrant was sent to Rwanda by the U.K. government on April 30 after his asylum application was rejected, is not an entirely new programme.

The plan was introduced by the Home Office in 1999 and co-funded by the European Refugee Fund. In 2002, a reintegration assistance programme was added to the scheme to help repatriated migrants meet their basic needs after arrival, such as finding a place to live, finding a job, supporting education, or starting a business in the destination country. The programme was initially valued at £500 and gradually increased to £3,000 ($3,800) by 2006.

The current plan is an extension of the existing voluntary returns scheme. Under the new programme, the British government offers financial assistance to migrants and failed asylum seekers who opt to depart to a “safe third country,” or a country they are “admissible to.”

A person is eligible to apply for the service if they have been in the U.K. illegally or have overstayed their visa or permission to stay; withdrawn, or want to withdraw their application to stay in the country; claimed asylum; or have an official letter confirming that they are a victim of modern slavery.

File photo of Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during a press conference at the Downing Street.

File photo of Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during a press conference at the Downing Street. | Photo Credit: TOBY MELVILLE

As for reintegration support, a one-off payment is available to those departing to a country recognised as developing by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “You will not qualify for reintegration support if you are a non-permanent resident national of a developing country who is departing to a country that is not on the list,” a Home Office document, dated March 18, 2024, specifies.

The OECD categorises Rwanda as a low-income developing country. Over the years, several individuals have been sent to Rwanda from the U.K. under the VRS. As per the latest official data, 19,253 individuals voluntarily returned from Britain under the returns scheme last year. In fact, 24 of these returned to Rwanda, which data shows was their home country.

With a new treaty in place, the U.K. authorities can pay failed asylum seekers to leave for Rwanda even if it is not their home country.

Is Rwanda safe for refugees? 

Located in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the landlocked country of Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with a population of over 13 million people. The country has recorded significant progress in recent years in rebuilding infrastructure and developing its economy after a 1994 genocide, but continues to feature among the least developed nations in the world. Poverty has been a major concern as well.

The government in Rwanda has been further accused of stifling dissent, keeping tight control on media, opposition and civil society, and supporting rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities were commonplace, and fair trial standards were routinely flouted in cases deemed sensitive. There were credible reports of arbitrary detention and mistreatment of people accused of “deviant behaviours,” including street children, sex workers and petty vendors,” Human Rights Watch noted..

The agency has also highlighted how Rwanda’s government has continued to exert pressure on the refugees. “Refugees who are known critics of the government have been threatened and harassed. In Africa, Human Rights Watch has documented and received credible reports of Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers being forcibly disappeared and returned to Rwanda, or killed,” it added. The U.K. Supreme Court’s ruling on the asylum policy also mentioned Rwanda’s poor human rights record and highlighted the risk of ill-treatment of refugees.

Around 1.35 lakh refugees and asylum seekers were registered in the country, as of September 2023, with most moving to Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Around 90% of these refugees live in five camps across the country, while around 80% of the refugee population is highly vulnerable and fully relies on humanitarian assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Instead of dealing with numerous internal challenges and addressing concerns of human rights groups, Rwanda has now agreed to open its borders to over 50,000 more refugees in the next few years.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government, however, remains unfazed. “No matter what number is announced to arrive here tomorrow or after tomorrow ... we are capable of receiving them,” Deputy government spokesperson Alain Mukuralinda told Reuters.

Editorial | Stopping the boats: On the U.K.’s new ‘Illegal Migration Law’ 

So, what’s in it for Rwanda?

As part of the asylum plan, dubbed by some commentators as a “cash cow” for Rwanda, the U.K. government will give development funding to the country and has promised to meet processing and integration costs for each relocated person. Britain has already paid Rwanda 220 million pounds ($250 million), and the total cost is estimated to go up to 600 million pounds for 300 refugees.

Despite criticism from several quarters, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame maintains that its decision to be part of the U.K.’s asylum plan is not economically driven or about “trading people,” but to offer them a better chance at life. The nation has reiterated its commitment to “international obligations” for “innovative action to solve one of the world’s biggest crises,” positioning itself as a suitable place for refugees from the African region, and elsewhere.

“Rwanda has a deep, historical connection with the plight of refugees worldwide. As such, we feel a moral obligation to support the world’s most vulnerable. The funds provided by the UK will be invested in Rwandan society, helping us to create jobs, improve public services and upgrade our infrastructure for the benefit of both migrants and Rwandan nationals,” government spokesperson Yolande Makolo told news Anadolu news Agency.

Experts believe that Rwanda’s agreement to partner with the U.K. is an extension of these efforts to emerge as an ally of the West which is grappling with a migrant problem. “I have heard some people claim that the U.K. gave us money, wanting to dump people here. No, we don’t do that kind of thing. We are not involved in the buying and selling of people. We can’t do that because of our core values,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said at an event.

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