How Kigali renders itself indispensable to western partners

What does Rwanda gain from the refugee deal with the UK?

© Reuters / POOL New

Rwandan President Kagame with British Prime Minister Johnson at a UK-Africa investment summit in 2020. ‘Rwanda is trying to make itself indispensable by posing as a haven of relative stability in a very unstable region.’

The United Kingdom aims to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, where they will be subject to the local asylum procedures. ‘Europe has a notorious track record of making deals with non-democratic states and authoritarian leaders who take it upon themselves to help Europe control the waves of migration’, comments MO* journalist Kris Berwouts. But what does Rwanda gain from this unconventional plan?

With his usual aplomb, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on April 14 that the United Kingdom had finalised an agreement to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. The agreement affects not only people from Rwanda, but rather all asylum seekers who have entered the UK illegally, regardless of their nationality.

Asylum seekers’ claims will be thoroughly examined by the Rwandan authorities. Those who are subsequently recognised as refugees will be permitted to remain in Rwanda. However, precisely how the UK and Rwanda will implement this plan does not seem to be at the forefront of their minds at the moment.

In British opposition circles, it is assumed that the timing of this agreement is not accidental.

For London, the initial aim is to reduce the number of potential asylum seekers reaching the UK via the Channel. Last year, the number of people was 28,500, the highest ever. According to Johnson, the plan will save lives by discouraging potential asylum seekers from crossing the Channel in rickety boats.

The Rwandan government has pledged to integrate these migrants into Rwanda. Kigali will receive 120 million pounds (almost 145 million euros) to host them, including vocational training and other education. This programme will not only be organised for the benefit of the newcomers, but will also be available to Rwandans.

In British opposition circles, it is assumed that the timing of this agreement is not accidental. On May 5, local elections will be held in a large part of the UK, which will have a considerable impact on national politics.

Boris Johnson is counting on this plan to shift the political climate in his favour. In recent months, he has been heavily criticised for the illegal parties organised by his entourage during the lockdowns. The deal with Rwanda ought to be proof that Johnson does have the nation’s best interests at heart.

This is not the first time that Rwanda has embarked on such a partnership. In 2017, the country reported that it accommodated a total of 4,000 refugees who were not allowed to stay in Israel. At the time, these were mainly people from Eritrea and South Sudan. But this cooperation was never formalised, nor did the refugees stay in Rwanda for long.

Loads of criticism

Johnson’s plan drew criticism immediately, most notably from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It violates the most important international refugee treaty, the Geneva Convention, as the UK wants to deport asylum seekers to a country where human rights are trampled.

Rwanda can hardly be described as a functioning rule of law. There is severe political repression, including arbitrary arrests and a politicised judiciary. Human Rights Watch says it has evidence that Rwanda has executed opponents abroad in the recent past. And in 2018, Rwandan police killed 12 refugees after a protest in the Karongi district.

‘People fleeing war, conflict and persecution, deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities.’
Gillian Triggs (UNHCR)

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) also strongly condemns Johnson’s deal. According to this organisation, the UK has no right to outsource its asylum obligations to third countries. The UNHCR therefore called on London not to implement this plan.

‘UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries without adequate safeguards and standards,’ stated Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, in a press release. Such schemes only serve to deflect asylum responsibilities, shirk international obligations and violate the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention’.

‘People fleeing war, conflict and persecution,’ Triggs continued, ‘deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and sent abroad for processing.’

Meanwhile, key players in British civil society have also spoken out against Johnson’s plan. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, condemned it in his Easter Monday sermon. He declared the plan unethical and contrary to the judgement of God. Even Johnson’s party colleague and former Prime Minister Theresa May distanced herself from the plan ‘on the basis of its legality, feasibility and efficacy’.

Concerns are also raised in eastern Congo, especially in North Kivu, which borders Rwanda. In the vicinity of Beni, the jihadist militia ADF has been fighting for years. Here, it is feared that an influx of refugees, the majority of whom are Muslim, could be a source of reinforcements for that militia. This does not seem very credible, but many people are at least concerned.

Johnson’s deal, however, is receiving international support from a certain, perhaps predictable corners. In France, for example, the far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen called the plan’ feasible’, although it could be improved. In Flanders, the N-VA, through its MEP Assita Kanko, deemed it a good idea for the United Kingdom to send illegal migrants to Rwanda. According to the N-VA, this may ‘help combat human trafficking.’

What does Rwanda gain from this?

It would seem obvious that Johnson wants to distract the UK’s attention from domestic politics. But what can Rwanda gain from such a deal?

The current regime came to power in 1994, at the end of the genocide, when Kagame’s RPF seized power. President Paul Kagame, then Minister of Defence and Vice-President, managed to rebuild his country in record time.

In doing so, he could count on the support of Western partners. The English-speaking world in particular struggled with the notion of guilt: how could the international community in Rwanda not have had the courage and decisiveness to nip the genocide in the bud? Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President Bill Clinton were Rwanda’s main advocates, shielding the country from criticism.

In the years that followed, Kagame’s ‘genocide credit’ slowly but surely crumbled. Rwanda was guilty of crimes against humanity in Congo, and repression in the country itself became increasingly harsh and better organised. Criticism increased, including of Kagame’s achievements. Of course, the makeover of the country was spectacular, but Rwanda had by no means become an inclusive society.

Rwanda had become a de facto one-party state, and the economic successes had an obvious downside. Agricultural policy, for example, was successful, production was increasing, but this did not ultimately benefit ordinary Rwandans. The country was still grappling with a huge poverty problem.

To the West, Rwanda is trying to make itself indispensable by presenting itself as a haven of relative stability in a very volatile region.

Rwanda eventually shifted its strategy to protect its regional interests. At the turn of the century, the country could still afford to openly and directly deploy its army on Congolese soil. When this was no longer tolerated, it acted mainly by supporting local rebellions and thus keeping a foothold in Congo.

In 2012, this too came to an end. Rwanda’s most loyal partners, namely England, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, then imposed sanctions. These were introduced because of Rwanda’s support for the M23, a militia led by ethnic Congolese Tutsis.

Since then, Rwanda has chosen to maintain its dominance through multilateral institutions. In these, a strong state can effortlessly dominate a more fragile one like Congo. Rwanda has sought and found a guiding role in the African Union, the ICGLR, the EAC, the African Development Bank.

To the West, Rwanda is trying to make itself indispensable by presenting itself as a haven of relative stability in a very volatile region. And it is succeeding quite well, for example by participating in all sorts of African Union peace missions. This can also be achieved on a bilateral basis.

Total

In July last year, Rwanda dispatched a 1,000 troop force to Mozambique when the Mozambican government failed to defeat the jihadist movement Al Shabaab. This group has been ravaging northeast Mozambique since 2017. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) was supposed to send a peacekeeping mission, but it was very difficult to get it off the ground.

Europe, meanwhile, has a tradition of making deals with non-democratic states and authoritarian leaders.

So, Rwanda deployed soldiers, at the request of the Mozambican government. They succeeded in driving Al Shabaab out of Mocímboa da Praia and Palma, towns vital to a project of French energy giant Total. The basis for this intervention was, among other things, the excellent contacts between the French President Macron and his Rwandan counterpart Kagame, and the reconciliation between France and Rwanda.

The Rwandan regime is now also scoring marks with the British refugee deal. With this agreement, Kigali shows that it can play a constructive role and move in directions that the West considers essential.

Europe, meanwhile, has a tradition of making deals with non-democratic states and authoritarian leaders, who take it upon themselves to help Europe manage waves of migration. But none of these deals help to project the aura of civilisation and rule of law that the West likes to present itself. This British agreement with Rwanda is no exception.

This article was translated by Brita Vandermeulen

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