Britain Seeks to Send Refugees to Rwanda
Boris Johnson’s government is partnering with an authoritarian regime in a legally questionable effort to make Britain’s asylum-seeker problem disappear.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Mali to investigate allegations of a civilian massacre, the United States extends temporary protected status to nationals from Cameroon, and Algeria increases European gas exports.
If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
Britain’s Gambit With Rwanda on Refugees
Britain on Thursday unveiled a plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda in a deal that will almost certainly face legal challenges. In return for an upfront payment of 120 million pounds (about $157 million) the Rwandan government will take responsibility for asylum-seekers, excluding children, who seek refuge in the United Kingdom via irregular migration routes.
Refugee organizations and some British civil servants immediately criticized the plan as “cruel” and “callous.” As recently as last year, the British government raised concerns at the United Nations over Rwanda’s human rights record, calling for “independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.”
The deal being proposed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has in some ways already been attempted and failed. The Israeli government offshored several thousands of asylum-seekers to Rwanda between 2014 and 2017, and it abandoned the scheme when it emerged that almost all ended up in the hands of people smugglers and were subjected to slavery when traveling back to Europe. It is clear that sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda will not reduce the role of traffickers, who will continue to prey on persecuted people who have no legal routes into the U.K. to claim asylum.
Rwanda’s opposition leaders have denounced Britain’s shamelessness as the country struggles to host over 127,000 refugees—of whom 90 percent live in camps. “How could a richer, bigger country be unable to host refugees and think they could just dump them in Rwanda because they have money. It is unacceptable,” Frank Habineza, president of the Democratic Green Party and member of Parliament, told the East African.
In the past few months, Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel had attempted to close a similar deal with democratic countries like Ghana and Kenya, but both rejected it in the face of heavy criticism from their citizens. Patel and Johnson then found a more willing (if less palatable) partner in Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has no such qualms about domestic opposition.
As journalist Michela Wrong, who has been covering Rwanda since the genocide, argues in her book Do Not Disturb, Kagame is an authoritarian governing permanently, because “every election in Rwanda is rigged.” (In 2017, Kagame managed to win 99 percent of the vote.)
Kagame, who seized power in the wake of the 1994 genocide, has been lauded by many leaders abroad, even as he rules with an iron fist at home. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton called Kagame “one of the greatest leaders of our time,” while Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair declared him a “visionary leader.”
On the exterior, Rwanda appears a seemingly robust economy with rapid growth and improvements in health and education under a progressive Parliament in which roughly 60 percent of lawmakers are women. It ranked 38th on ease of doing business in a World Bank survey of 190 nations in 2020.
But as Kavitha Surana wrote in Foreign Policy in 2017, “there is a sort of Pleasantville quality to the country.” Behind the veneer is a regime critics describe as a brutal dictatorship.
Kagame’s political opponents have raised concerns over the killings and disappearances of opposition members at home and abroad. In Belgium, an exiled Rwandan politician was found floating in a canal in 2005, and in 2011 London’s metropolitan police warned a number of defectors they faced an “imminent threat” of assassination by Rwandan government agents. In 2021, a Rwandan ex-army officer was gunned down in Mozambique. The U.S. State Department recently cited politically motivated forced disappearances by the Rwandan military intelligence in its country report.
In 2021, Paul Rusesabagina—who was immortalized in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda—was imprisoned on terrorism charges after calling for “any means possible to bring about change” in a widely circulated video in 2018. “Rwanda is a country that has never known democracy. Kagame has exhibited many characteristics of the classic African strongman since taking power. He was elected with 95% of the vote and there is nobody in the world that can call results like that a free election and keep a straight face,” Rusesabagina wrote in a 2006 memoir.
Despite such accusations, British support for Kagame appears unwavering. As two of Rwanda’s highest-profile opposition leaders put it when French President Emmanuel Macron visited Kigali in May last year, “there are good dictators and bad dictators.”
Rwanda’s Western backers are perhaps not fooled by Kagame’s laundered image but choose to ignore it because of his reputation as an effective leader who is always ready to assist U.S. and European governments. Rwandan troops provide much-needed security services in Mozambique and the Central African Republic. Under a deal funded by the European Union, Rwanda has taken in evacuees from Libya and offered temporary asylum to hundreds from Afghanistan in transit to the United States.
Yet, even before the ink dries on the U.K. deal, the Rwandan government is revealing what lies beneath its seemingly benevolent facade. Kigali is much less willing to welcome refugees from neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania. Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta said on Thursday during a media conference in Kigali, “We would prefer not to receive people from neighboring countries.”
Ignoring Rwanda’s double standard, Johnson called the plan an “innovative approach” driven by a “shared humanitarian impulse” that will provide “safe and legal routes for asylum.” But, more significantly, he said that the deal would act as a “deterrent” to those illegally crossing the English Channel.
The plan is contingent on the passage of Britain’s Nationality and Borders Bill currently being reviewed by Parliament. In the meantime, Kagame under the Rwandan Constitution, revised in 2015, can serve until 2034 as the head of what has become a de facto single-party state.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, April 20: Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi meets with Angola’s President João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço in the capital, Luanda.
The U.N. Security Council holds a meeting on the U.N. mission in Western Sahara.
Nigerian Finance Minister Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed and Ghanaian Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta speak at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The African Union holds an expert session on migration, refugees, and internally displaced people.
Thursday, April 21: The U.N. holds a meeting on its missions in Sudan, South Sudan, and Abyei.
Draghi meets with the Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso in the capital, Brazzaville.
What We’re Watching
Mali-Russia investigation. Mali’s military government says it has opened an investigation “out of good faith” into claims of a massacre in the central town of Moura by its troops and Russian mercenaries operating as part of the Wagner Group.
Mali’s army announced on April 1 that it had killed 203 militants during an operation in late March against the al Qaeda-affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims. Human Rights Watch said Malian armed forces and suspected Russian mercenaries allegedly executed about 300 civilian men in the “worst single atrocity” committed since the conflict began in 2012.
The EU has suspended its military training mission in Mali over the presence of Russian forces. Mali’s military junta earlier this year effectively kicked out French media and troops. There have been previous violations in Mali by EU-trained actors, and the often singular focus on Russia by international media feeds the Malian junta’s rhetoric.
Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the BBC last week that the Moura accusations are part of a “smear campaign” that “started the day we asked the French Operation Barkhane to leave our country.”
Nigeria-U.S. weapons deal. Nigeria concluded a $1 billion arms and military training deal with the United States on Friday, after it was paused last July over human rights concerns. The weapons, including attack helicopters, will help Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and armed gangs in the north of the country.
U.S. officials say the sales to Nigeria will improve security in the region even though its completion came a few days after the U.S. State Department released a report citing multiple cases of rights and freedom of speech violations in the country. The Nigerian Army has long been accused of impunity in its operations, including the shooting of unarmed protesters in 2020.
Cameroonian refugees. The United States will for the first time give Cameroonians an 18-month temporary protected status if they were already in the United States on April 14. It will allow Cameroonian nationals to apply for work in the United States and remain “until conditions in their home country improve.” The Biden administration’s move to grant temporary status for people from Ukraine had sparked criticism of how African refugees are treated.
Algeria-Italy gas deal. Algeria will replace Russia as Italy’s top gas supplier. Under the agreement, clinched last week, Italy will increase imports from Algeria by around 40 percent through 2024. Algeria’s deal came the same day ambassadors from France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain held a meeting with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, which sought to “strengthen partnership” in the energy sector. Nigeria is the world’s 10th-largest gas exporter; Algeria is ninth.
This Week in Culture
African debuts at Venice Biennale. This weekend, Cameroon will present the first-ever show of NFTs, digital objects whose ownership is tracked on a blockchain, at the 59th Venice Biennale—a national debut that speaks volumes about the space available for artists in the country and who is willing, or unwilling, to fund it. Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s 35-year rule has done little to facilitate sectors, like art, that are driven by younger citizens.
Cameroon has largely relied on private sector investment rather than government support to grow its art and culture sector. Although the pavilion was commissioned by the Cameroonian Ministry of Culture, it is not funded by the Cameroonian government; it was financed by a collective known as Global Crypto Art DAO. One show at the pavilion will display art by four Cameroonian artists, while the second is the NFT show featuring digital products by more than 20 artists from countries including China, Germany, and the United States—notably, not Cameroon.
The 120-year-old Biennale has traditionally been an entirely European affair. More recent iterations have seen some greater representation of artists from Africa and Asia. Ghana, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and South Africa are all returnees.
The Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development has commissioned and financed the country’s first National Pavilion to feature the work of women and gender-nonconforming artists. Two Ugandan artists examine “the agency of women’s work in Africa” and interrogate Western dominance of mainstream culture through its perceptions of race.
Chart of the Week
Nigeria’s security woes seem to be worsening in the northern region, with the government dealing with not only Islamist militants but also opportunistic armed gangs that have no ideological allegiance. According to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of displaced people from northeastern Nigeria due to various conflicts has reached 3.2 million. It has cost the Nigerian economy about $141 billion.
What We’re Reading
Eswatini democracy protests. Eswatini investigative platform Inhlase examines the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in the southern African country. In June 2021, violent riots broke out in Eswatini when pro-democracy protesters clashed with police. The government has refused to set up an inquiry.
King Mswati III promised to hold a national dialogue about democratic reform, but pro-democracy activists are skeptical about democratic change, while others fear the talks will be conducted on his terms despite an agreement to involve the Southern African Development Community in setting the terms of the political dialogue.
What happened to the Dapchi schoolgirls? In 2018, Nigerian officials reunited 101 of the 110 schoolgirls kidnapped by militants in the northeastern town of Dapchi. Nigerian outlet HumAngle uncovers why the teenagers did not return to school after their release. At 18, Aisha Mahmuda has given birth to her second child. Like many of the Dapchi girls who came back, she dropped out of school and got married.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Join the Conversation
Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.
Already a subscriber?.
Join the Conversation
Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.
Not your account?
Join the Conversation
Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.