by Steve Bishop
The human rights record of the government in Rwanda is not one which inspires confidence. It is especially not a record designed to inspire confidence in refugees, fleeing conflict and political turmoil, who are seeking a safe haven. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), under President Paul Kagame, continues to suppress opposition voices and to target those deemed to be a threat to the government.
In its World Report 2022, Human Rights watch observed of Rwanda that,
“Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities was 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.”
In October last year a number of political opposition figures were arrested on charges as vague as “spreading rumours”, and “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.” Such tactics are the common currency of oligarchies the world over, serving to force dissent underground and squeeze the space for legitimate political opposition and protest.
The activities of the Rwandan state also extend beyond its borders, with opposition figures as far afield as Australia and Canada suffering threats and harassment. 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.
The response of the Rwandan regime to the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation of the poorest. Stringent lockdown measures were reinforced with the arbitrary detention of tens of thousands of people, held without due process or legal representation in stadiums or detained in the Gikondo transit centre, a facility where they faced regular beatings, often in crowded conditions. The European Parliament has adopted resolutions condemning Rwanda’s human rights record.
Against this background the UK government announced in April its plans for those claiming asylum in the UK to be relocated to Rwanda, where their cases will be processed. If they are granted asylum, they will be encouraged to remain in Rwanda for at least five years.
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the policy as an indication of the UK being “a beacon of openness and generosity”, claiming that the plan will not prevent those seeking asylum by legal routes but is intended to curb illegal migration. Quite how those fleeing violence and war would be in a position to gain ‘legal’ documentation was not made clear. How relocated asylum seekers would be accommodated in Rwanda was equally vague, other than temporary plans to convert a former detention centre into a hostel.
The British government’s proposals have raised alarm bells at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, which is the guardian of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and to its 1967 protocol. This is international legislation to which the UK is a signatory. There is no evidence that UNHCR has been consulted on any plans to send asylum seekers abroad. In addition, the UN human rights office tweeted that the plan raises human rights concerns about forcible returns, family separation, “arbitrary deprivation of liberty” and the prospect that cases might not be assessed on an individual basis.
While British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, insists that the proposals are “humane” and that they will “stop the abuse of these people by a bunch of traffickers and gangsters”, the evidence to date suggests quite the opposite.
The Australian government initiated a policy of placing asylum seekers in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in 2001. The policy ran until 2007, and restarted in 2014. The result has been that thousands of asylum seekers have found themselves in detention camps, at a cost of around $12bn in the eight years to 2021.
The centres have been characterised by harsh physical conditions, with detainees suffering from poor mental health due to prolonged detention and uncertainty about their future prospects. Inadequate and unhygienic living conditions, as well as poor standards of healthcare have also been well documented.
In a submission made to an Australian Senate inquiry into conditions at the Nauru detention centre, Charlotte Wilson, a former Save the Children worker, stated, “I firmly believe that the level of trauma that asylum seekers have been subjected to has caused profound damage to nearly every single man, woman and child who has been arbitrarily interned in Nauru.”
A migration deal between Rwanda and Israel in 2014 saw an estimated 4,000 people leave the country immediately, many attempting to return to Europe through people smuggling routes, and falling prey to trafficking and human rights abuses. Not quite as “humane” as Prime Minster Johnson would suggest. By 2018 the Israeli government claimed that around 20,000 of the estimated 65,000 asylum seekers who had arrived in the country had been deported under one scheme or another.
The British government are planning to adopt the measure to demonstrate that they are tough on immigration and that the UK is not a ‘soft touch’ for those seeking asylum. However, as Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UK representative for the UNHCR has pointed out,
“…what’s often forgotten amid all the recent noise around Channel crossings is that asylum claims in the UK have been falling, and remain far lower here than in countries like France and Germany. The situation in the UK is manageable.”
The new proposal is clearly little more than a consolidation of the ‘hostile environment’ approach to refugees and asylum seekers. The scheme also appears to prioritise the offshoring of non-European asylum seekers, many displaced from areas such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan as a result of foreign military activity, occupation, economic sanctions and NATO interventions in those countries.
There is no indication that the policy will apply to those deemed to be seeking asylum from the war in Ukraine, who have been given active encouragement through the government’s Homes for Ukraine programme. Ukrainian refugees have the right to work, to receive public funds such as Universal Credit, and access to public services such as schools and health care. By contrast, nationals of other countries claiming the right to asylum in the UK are not normally allowed to work while their claim is being processed.
The policy in the UK is already running into difficulties, with a group of asylum seekers at the Brook House detention centre, near Gatwick Airport, going on hunger strike last week in protest at their threatened deportation. Detainees have been prohibited phones with cameras and no internet access.
In response to the hunger strikes Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said,
“we know attempts will now be made to frustrate the process and delay removals; I will not be deterred and remain fully committed to delivering what the British public expect.”
The Home Office are aiming for the first removal flights to commence on 14 June.
As an organisation rooted in opposing colonialism, opposing unjust wars and supporting those in need of assistance and political asylum, Liberation has raised its voice, along with bodies as diverse as the British Red Cross, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Refugee Council, in opposition to the government’s proposals.
A broad coalition is urging the government to reconsider its policy towards asylum seekers and, in line with international conventions to which it is a signatory, drop any measures which could be deemed hostile or inhumane to those seeking asylum in the UK.
That means, in addition to dropping the current proposals, in line with the views of the UNHCR, demanding a better-designed UK asylum system, properly resourced, with simplified procedures that will result in fairer and faster assessments.
Steve Bishop is a member of Liberation
Photo: Creative Commons/Sandor Csudai