Rwanda has carefully crafted an image for itself over the course of several years as the country of reception preferred by refugees from all over the world. In contrast to the laudatory articles by a padlocked local press, the reality of asylum seekers on the ground is far bleaker than it seems.
Crossing borders to flee a country, often risking one’s life and reaching the United Kingdom to finally build a future… in Rwanda. This is the outcome of the migration policy announced by the UK government in April and cemented in agreements signed by London and Kigali on April 14.
The policy has proved extremely controversial from the beginning. So far, no asylum seekers have actually been flown to Rwanda from the UK, although an attempt was scheduled for mid-June and abandoned at the last minute, after a decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) finally prevented its departure.
However, the project has not yet been abandoned. The High Court of Justice in London has been working on the controversial agreement concluded with Kigali since September 5. Another hearing related to an appeal brought by the group Asylum Aid will take place in October.
With this agreement, London hopes to discourage migrants from crossing the Channel. Despite multiple repressive efforts to prevent them from coming to the United Kingdom, however, the numbers crossing the Channel have only increased this year.
To justify its decision the British government has not skimped on its praise of Rwanda. During the presentation of the partnership, Boris Johnson, British prime minister at the time, praised the small East African country, "recognized worldwide for its record in welcoming and integrating migrants".
A cafeteria and basketball courts
For many years, Rwanda has also seen itself as a "land of refuge" for refugees from all over the world. Supported by Paul Kagame, the president in power since 2000, the country's approach to welcoming migrants is presented as a model of hospitality in Africa and all over the world. Currently, Rwanda hosts more than 127,000 refugees, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. Last year, the country even offered asylum to Afghans fleeing the arrival of the Taliban.
Since 2019, Kigali has hosted the reception program for refugees from Libya (ETM), created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So far, more than 1,100 migrants have been transferred to Rwanda through this process. These refugees can apply for asylum there, or for resettlement in a third country.
Meanwhile, the migrants, often traumatized by their exile, live in the Gashora camp which is made up of brick houses and located 60 kilometers south of the capital. On site, there is a cafeteria, basketball and volleyball courts and a circuit for learning how to drive. Training workshops for weaving and hairdressing are also organized.
"At the entrance of the facility, you can also observe young boys and girls singing and playing guitar and piano all as part of the efforts to restore their mental health," wrote the local newspaper The New Times, after being allowed to visit the center last June. "In Rwanda, I can walk, move freely and do everything I want, so I can't compare my current life to the life in Libya, because there, you only survive that day and you won’t know what’s coming up tomorrow," explained Zemen Fasha, an Eritrean, in an interview for the article.
Curfew, 'isolation' and unemployment
This model of reception, held up as a banner by its president Paul Kagame for 22 years, remains a mirage for many refugees. In an article by The Telegraph, about the migrants encountered outside the Gashora camp last June, a completely different picture is painted from the one showcased by the Rwandan government. The transfer to Rwanda allows the refugees to flee the chaos in Libya but once inside the camp, it remains very difficult for them to have a normal life. "The economic conditions in the transit center have been harsh. Since coming here, I have not been able to support my child whom I left back in Sudan," said one man whose wife died.
"This is too little to have a decent living where I find it difficult to even afford basic necessities like clothes, shoes and food outside the camp," said another refugee, who feared being punished if his name was published.
All the testimonies reflect a feeling of "isolation," where nothing is done for a possible integration into Rwandan society. "Many refugees trained at the center are forced to work as farm laborers or domestic servants to make ends meet, but most are unemployed and live on around 35 pounds (40 euros) a month." In Gashora, the occupants are also prohibited from leaving after 8 pm, reports the British media.
Rwanda: nearly 40% live below the poverty line
For the other refugees settled in the country, the situation is hardly more enviable. Like Rwandans — nearly 40% of the population still lives below the poverty line — migrants have not benefitted from the rapid economic development that has taken place in the country over the last 10 years. Many survive with financial aid from UN institutions.
In February 2018, nearly 3,000 refugees from the DRC demonstrated outside the UNHCR office in Karongi, in the west of the country, to protest against a reduction in food allowances and to plead for better living conditions. The Rwandan police responded by opening fire and killing 12 protesters, according to the organization Human Rights Watch.
The fate of Eritrean and Sudanese exiles sent to Rwanda by Israel a few years ago also undermines the image of a "promised land" for refugees. Between December 2013 and June 2017, in the context of an agreement similar to the one signed by London, nearly 4,000 asylum seekers were deported from Tel Aviv to Rwanda and Uganda.
On the ground, the situation of the asylum seekers quickly became disastrous. "Most ended up in the hands of smugglers and were subjected to slavery when trying to reach Europe," Abdul Tejean-Cole, a Sierra Leonean lawyer and human rights activist, told InfoMigrants. The resulting "public outcry" subsequently "forced Israel to abandon the program."
Fifteen years in prison for a video
According to UNHCR and local authorities, since 2019, no person received through the ETM program has applied for permanent residence in Rwanda. On the other hand, nearly 600 exiles were resettled in Canada, Finland, France or Sweden.
Ismail, a Sudanese exile met by AFP in Gashora, prefered "to leave by trying to cross the [Mediterranean] sea". Tesfay, a 27-year-old Eritrean, expressed similar views: "I don't want to stay here. It's a poor country with its own problems. I can't leave Eritrea to resettle in Rwanda."
If human rights are nonexistent in Tesfay’s country, the country which currently hosts him is also regularly singled out for its lack of respect for individual freedoms. Rwanda’s authorities frequently undermine freedom of expression. A simple blog post or video contrary to the government’s opinion can have serious consequences for its authors. In October 2021, the Rwandan activist Ivonne Idamange was sentenced to 15 years in prison for criticizing the government on her YouTube channel.
Anyone who criticizes the Rwandan regime risks abuse, threats and arbitrary detentions, the same kind of punishment which intially led asylum seekers to flee their respective countries. NGOs have taken note of the situation. According to Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch, "credible information attests that Rwandan agents have carried out assassinations of Rwandan opponents abroad". And according to him, "many nationals of the country", although settled elsewhere, "live in fear" of reprisals from the regime, including outside Africa, "in Europe, Canada, or Australia".
Denmark follows UK with similar agreement
These dictatorial practices were denounced by the UK itself during the 37th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a regular and formal review of the human rights record of 193 UN member states. London says it "remains concerned by continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom." Released on January 25, 2021, the document even "recommends" Rwanda to "conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture."
These observations were swept aside by the British government a year and a half later, when it signed its agreement with Kigali. Its decision has even been copied in Europe: at the beginning of this month, Copenhagen and Kigali signed a declaration of similar bilateral cooperation for the transfer of asylum seekers from Denmark to Rwanda. As part of the agreement with the United Kingdom, Rwanda will receive initial funding of 120 million pounds sterling (140 million euros).