The Rwanda deportation scheme might be legal, but it remains deeply shameful

OpinionImmigration and asylum

Michela Wrong

Michela Wrong

Britain’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has got the go-ahead just as the African country edges towards ‘pariah state’ territory

People arrive on the southeast coast of England on 9 December 2022.
People arrive on the southeast coast of England on 9 December 2022. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Mon 19 Dec 2022

So the game is on, once again. Six months after a last-minute intervention by the European court of human rights prevented a flight carrying seven migrants from taking off for Kigali, the Home Office’s Rwanda asylum-processing deal is back in play, thanks to today’s ruling in favour of the scheme by Lord Justice Lewis and Mr Justice Swift.

A summer of political turmoil – which saw the exits of both the scheme’s originator, Priti Patel, and its enthusiastic supporter Boris Johnson – had offered the government a precious chance to shelve the policy, which even some Conservative stalwarts regard as morally distasteful and legally questionable.

A less hardline home secretary than Suella Braverman would have leapt at the chance. Whatever one thinks of the final ruling, the process of judicial review played its intended role, making public confidential material that was extremely awkward for a rightwing government intent on dispatching migrants out of sight and out of mind.

The various NGOs challenging the legality of the scheme learned, for example, that Home Office staff advised Patel early on that there was a “very high” risk of fraud after £120m was donated to Rwanda to fund the scheme – money paid out before a single migrant had landed in Kigali.

A previous British high commissioner to Kigali had, it also turned out, alerted Patel to the fact that refugee camps in Rwanda were used as recruitment hubs for Rwandan military operations inside neighbouring countries. Presciently, she was told that signing an asylum deal with President Paul Kagame would make it impossible in future to voice concerns about his human rights abuses both at home and abroad.

So the opportunity for Braverman to consign her predecessor’s idea to history was always there. Instead, seemingly bent on making Patel appear a soft touch, she doubled down, telling the Conservative party conference it was her “dream” to see a plane taking off for Rwanda.

Her colleagues have rallied round. Andrew Mitchell, who once tartly informed the House of Commons it would be cheaper to house asylum seekers at the Ritz, has watered down his rhetoric, no doubt aware that his new role as development secretary requires working alongside Braverman at the cabinet table.

Such dogged determination is explained by the flow of “small boats” across the Channel, with all their tragic human consequences. For a Conservative party that terms this an “invasion”, something, anything, has to be done, and if repressive, desperately poor Rwanda is an obviously inappropriate place to send migrants, then all the better, since the main aim is deterrence.

The deep paradox is that this asylum scheme is getting the nod in Britain just as Rwanda’s militaristic adventurism is edging the central African nation into “pariah state” territory as far as Kagame’s traditional western ally, the US, is concerned.

Ever since March, when a once-dormant rebel movement known as the M23 became active again at the border between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Washington has been pressuring Rwanda to end its support for the group, which is made up of members of Kagame’s Tutsi ethnic community. Kagame denies responsibility for the M23, describing it as “Congo’s problem”, while pointing to Congolese collaboration with an extremist Hutu militia. But in the eyes of Rwandan former army personnel, the M23 is a de facto branch of the Rwandan army, an expression of Kagame’s determination to show his regional rivals who calls the shots in Africa’s Great Lakes region. “We created it and we command it,” one former officer told me.

The M23 is now 20km from the key Congolese city of Goma and the fighting has internally displaced nearly 400,000 people – ah, the irony of sending migrants to a country so adept at creating refugees. In a recent massacre, which went barely reported in the British media, 131 villagers were summarily executed by M23 fighters.

Washington, which had hoped to call in future on Rwandan forces to counter the jihadist threat bubbling up across Africa, is dismayed by Kagame’s persistent destabilisation of his own back yard. Nor does it take kindly to Kagame’s continuing imprisonment of the former hotel manager-turned-politician Paul Rusesabagina, a US citizen it deems “wrongfully detained”.

At a US-Africa summit in Washington attended by nearly 50 African leaders last week, Kagame failed to win a bilateral meeting with Joe Biden. The US president instead held a tete-a-tete with the DRC’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, who recently contemptuously slammed Kagame as “a specialist in wars”.

Having walked down hundreds of red carpets and been courted by endless admiring celebrities, Kagame is unaccustomed to such treatment. Smarting at the snub, he boycotted the summit’s final group photo.

History shows that Kagame, whose government relies on foreign aid for an astonishing 74% of its annual expenditure, backs off smartly when confronted by donors working in concert. In 2012, when the M23 was on the point of capturing Goma, western donors cut aid to Rwanda, and the rebel group promptly withdrew.

This time, Britain’s deal with Kigali makes a united donor front impossible. At the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, officials have already noted the tactful silence now adopted over Rwanda’s human rights abuses.

If the Home Office – as seems all too likely – starts up deportations to Kigali, Britain will be going out on a limb. It may well win the admiration of the government in Denmark, mulling over a similar scheme, but it will have further alienated officials in Washington already inclined, since Brexit, to regard the UK as both a diplomatic and strategic irrelevance.

What are the scheme’s chances of working? The promised deterrent effect has shown no sign of materialising among those waiting in Calais, although the scheme’s supporters would no doubt argue that will change once deportations become a reality.

But it’s worth remembering what happened to a similar scheme signed between Rwanda and Israel. About 4,000 migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan who had crossed the Sinai peninsula were deported to Kigali between 2014 and 2017, only for most to be driven to the border with Uganda, where they were dumped. The vast majority left Rwanda almost immediately, and the scheme was abandoned after a public outcry in Israel.

This ruling will go to appeal. As she celebrates today’s victory, Braverman should be mindful of a fundamental point. High court judges only tell governments what they are allowed to do, not what they should do. And in the eyes of many in her own party, and the country as a whole, while this deal has just been ruled to be legal, it’s also deeply shameful.

  • Michela Wrong is the author of Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, published by HarperCollins


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