Despite having a much-criticised track record concerning its treatment of refugees, Rwanda has signed deals with both the United Kingdom and Denmark that involve receiving deported asylum seekers and irregular migrants from both the countries for processing and potential permanent relocation.
In mid-April, Rwanda and the UK finalised an “economic development partnership” whose centrepiece is the UK proposal to send people attempting to enter the UK irregularly to Rwanda. The deportees would be allowed to remain in Rwanda or return to their home countries. According to the Guardian, it is expected that people removed will initially be taken to a hostel in Kigali for processing.
The highly controversial deal has been harshly criticised by UK church leaders, opposition politicians, and national and international refugee rights advocates. While the UK insists that Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world, it harshly criticised the country last year for its human rights record.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) harshly criticised the deal, saying that it “does not support the externalisation of asylum states’ obligations. This includes measures taken by states to transfer asylum seekers and refugees to other countries, with insufficient safeguards to protect their rights, or where this leads to the shifting rather than the sharing of responsibilities to protect refugees.”
The UK NGO Detention Action said that people sent to Rwanda could face “indefinite detention under a government notorious for violent persecution of dissent.” The organisation also highlighted that “the UK currently gives asylum to Rwandan refugees fleeing political persecution.” Human Rights Watch recalled that in 2018, Rwandan security forces shot dead at least 12 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo when they protested a cut to food rations. Authorities subsequently arrested and prosecuted more than 60 refugees on charges including rebellion and spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.
Previously, in June 2021, Denmark signed a memorandum of understanding on asylum and migration issues with Rwanda. The agreement seeks to strengthen Rwanda’s “Refugee Status Determination” capability and envisages the processing of asylum applications to take place outside of the EU.
Just weeks before the MoU was signed, UNHCR had urged Denmark to avoid externalising their asylum obligations as the practice “frustrates access to international protection, is inconsistent with global solidarity and responsibility sharing, regularly undermines the rights of asylum seekers and refugees and thus violates international obligations of States.”
The MoU mentions Rwanda’s ETM centre in Gashora, which has been sharply criticised for abuses suffered by refugees evacuated from Libya who have been housed there. In April 2020, a Rwandan police commander was accused of sexually assaulting a child refugee at the ETM centre. Rwanda’s police force accused the refugees of lying, saying they were unhappy with coronavirus-related restrictions and that the boy was drunk.
It is unclear whether the Danish government has sent anyone to Rwanda yet. According to Infomigrants, while the memorandum of understanding is not legally binding, signed in late April, it sets the framework for future negotiations and cooperation between both countries.
As of 2020, there were 139,491 refugees and 465 asylum seekers in Rwanda, mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. The government began vaccinating refugees against COVID-19 in March 2021, including more than 200 refugees residing in the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) Centre in Gashora.
Rwanda initially set up the ETM in mid-2019 for the purpose of housing refugees and migrants evacuated from Libya by UNHCR and the African Union. As of March 2021, there were 303 refugees and asylum seekers staying at the ETM centre. In November 2021, Rwanda, the African Union, and UNHCR signed an Addendum to the Memorandum of Understanding of the Emergency Transit Mechanism centre to continue evacuating third country nationals from Libya. The extension of the agreement ensured the continuation of the operation at the ETM centre until 31 December 2021 and expanded its capacity from 500 to 700 places.
- UNHCR, “Rwanda Vaccinates Refugees and Asylum-Seekers Against COVID-19,” 12 March 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2021/3/604b63ed4/rwanda-vaccinates-refugees-asylum-seekers-against-covid-19.html
- Syal, R. and Badshah, N. “UK to Send Asylum Seekers to Rwanda for Processing,” The Guardian, 13 April 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/apr/13/priti-patel-finalises-plan-to-send-asylum-seekers-to-rwanda
- Syal, R. “Tens of Thousands of Asylum Seekers Could be Sent to Rwanda, says Johnson,” The Guardian, 14 April 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/apr/14/tens-of-thousands-of-asylum-seekers-could-be-sent-to-rwanda-says-boris-johnson
- UNHCR, “Refugee Data Finder: Rwanda,” accessed on 19 April 2022, https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/download/?url=O1wSun
- UNICEF, “UNICEF Rwanda Humanitarian Situation Report: July-September 2021,” 10 October 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/rwanda/unicef-rwanda-humanitarian-situation-report-july-september-2021
- Tamfu, H. G. “Rwanda, the African Union and UNHCR Extend Agreement to Support the Emergency Evacuation of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers From Libya,” 5 November 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/afr/news/latest/2021/11/61862e1e4/rwanda-the-african-union-and-unhcr-extend-agreement-to-support-the-emergency.html
- Mellersh, N. “Denmark Seeks to Externalise Asylum Obligations to Rwanda,” Infomigrants, 5 June 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/32041/denmark-seeks-to-externalize-asylum-obligations-to-rwanda
- Hayden, S. “Rwandan Police Chief Accused of Sexual Assault of Child Refugee at UN Centre,” The Guardian, 27 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/27/rwandan-police-chief-accused-of-sexual-assault-of-child-refugee-at-un-centre
- Outside of the Gashora Transit Centre (Sally Hayden, “Rwandan Police Chief Accused of Sexual Assault of Child Refugee at UN Centre,” The Guardian, 27 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/27/rwandan-police-chief-accused-of-sexual-assault-of-child-refugee-at-un-centre)