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Rwanda’s Asylum Practices Under Spotlight as UK Supreme Court, UN, and US State Department Highlight Dangers

A hotel in Kigali, which is reportedly scheduled to be used for housing asylum seekers deported by the UK (Source: BBC,
Two weeks after the UK’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government’s plan to outsource asylum processing to Rwanda is unlawful, the UN Committee against Torture expressed concerns about Denmark’s plans to externalise asylum processing to Kigali. 

Following its review of Denmark’s eighth periodic review, the Committee against Torture (CAT) noted its concern regarding legislation passed in Denmark providing a basis for the externalisation of asylum processing to Rwanda. Amongst its recommendations to the State Party, CAT urged Denmark to: “Revisit legislation allowing for and plans concerning the externalisation of asylum policy, fully taking into account international standards and the guidance of international and regional bodies mandated to examine issues related to migration.” 

Two weeks earlier on 15 November, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that the UK government’s plan to outsource asylum processing to Rwanda is unlawful–as Rwanda is not considered a “safe country” for refugees and asylum seekers. While the government is now seeking to introduce legislation that “confirms” that Rwanda is a safe country, the Supreme Court concluded in its ruling: “there were substantial grounds for believing that there were real risks that asylum claims would not be properly determined by the Rwandan authorities. There were, therefore, real risks of refoulement {forced return}.”

Treatment Concerns 

Despite Rwanda’s effort to burnish its image as a welcoming country for refugees, there is a growing body of reports indicating its failure to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society, including both citizens and non-citizens alike. With respect to non-citizens–including, by definition, anyone deported to Rwanda under the UK or Danish schemes–there are numerous indications that detention, lack of care, and failure to identify at-risk individuals abound. The US State Department’s 2022 trafficking report provides clear warnings in this regard with respect to possible victims of trafficking, noting in particular the threat of detention: 

“The government continued operating transit centers that advocacy groups and NGOs reported detained vulnerable persons and potential trafficking victims—including those in commercial sex, adults and children experiencing homelessness, members of the LGBTQI+ community, foreign nationals, and children in street vending and forced begging—and did not adequately screen for trafficking indicators among them. The government held many potential victims of trafficking in these centers, which functioned as de facto detention facilities, for up to six months. Observers further noted that authorities often released detainees back on the streets abruptly and without notice, thereby exposing them to possible revictimization. While some centers provided detainees and identified victims with psychological counseling, education, vocational training, and reintegration services, not all transit centers offered the same services. NGOs reported officials did not effectively use identification and screening mechanisms to screen for trafficking indicators among underserved communities such as those engaged in commercial sex, adults and children experiencing homelessness, and children in street vending and forced begging who were also denied access to protection measures. Observers reported officials did not follow victim referral procedures with respect to the LGBTQI+ community and individuals in commercial sex due to widespread cultural prejudice. Officials were less likely to refer members of the LGBTQI+ community for services, if at all.”

Alongside wider human rights concerns, such as limited freedom of expression and closed political space, observers have repeatedly highlighted concerns regarding the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. UNHCR has reported as recently as mid-2023 its effort to provide assistance to detained refugees. 

In one particularly notorious case on 22 February 2018, Rwandan police fired live ammunition at a group of refugees from the DRC protesting outside a UNHCR office. Eight refugees were killed on the spot and another died the following day, while two pregnant women who fled the shooting subsequently miscarried. Instead of investigating the police’s disproportionate use of force, authorities arrested and prosecuted refugees for their involvement in the protest. Subsequent confrontations in Kiziba Refugee Camp in May saw another refugee killed, and others injured. 

Of particular concern, especially in the context of the UK’s efforts to externalise asylum processing to Rwanda, is the fact that the country’s asylum system remains nascent, undermining its ability to provide protection. As UNHCR noted in evidence submitted to the Supreme Court, it has “serious concerns regarding access to asylum, the due process afforded applicants, and resultant risk of refoulement given the gaps in process and decision making. It is UNHCR’s assessment that long-term and fundamental engagement is required to develop Rwanda’s national asylum structures to fairly adjudicate individual asylum claims.” 

Numerous cases of refoulement have been documented. Between 2013 and 2018, Israel offered Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers a “choice”: face indefinite detention in Israel, or receive $3,500 and be sent to their country of origin or Rwanda. But investigations into the treatment of the estimated 4,000 refugees deported to Rwanda raised allegations of refugees denied the ability to lodge asylum claims, threats of deportation, and numerous instances in which refugees were clandestinely transferred to Uganda. 

Does Rwanda Allow for Immigration Detention? How Frequently is it Used?

According to Law N°57/2018 of 13/08/2018 on Immigration and Emigration in Rwanda, non-nationals can be detained in Rwanda for unauthorised entry. But there is little clarity about how widespread is the use of detention and even less when it comes to ad hoc forms of deprivation of liberty to which numerous vulnerable groups are subjected. 

In 2021 the UN Committee on Migrant Workers noted a “lack of statistical data on cases involving the placement of migrant workers and members of their families in administrative custody for reasons related to irregular migration” and urged the country to: “Include, in its next periodic report, detailed information, disaggregated by age, sex, nationality or origin or both, on the number of migrant workers currently held in administrative detention for immigration offences and on the place, average duration and conditions of their detention.” 

Several agencies, however, have recently reported its use, including: the U.S. State Department, which in its 2022 trafficking report noted the widespread detention of “potential” trafficking victims in the country’s network of “transit” centres, notorious for their failure to screen for vulnerable groups and frequent failure to provide basic services; and UNHCR, which as recently as 2023 reported in an operational update that it was conducting visits in the southern district of Huye “to support refugees in detention.” The UN Committee on Migrant Workers reported in its 2017 periodic report on Rwanda, which was only released in 2020, that the country had detained 208 migrants during the 2017/2018 fiscal year, though it is unclear if those numbers include ad hoc detentions of trafficking victims or refugees.

Denmark Refugees and Asylum Seekers Rwanda UN Committee against Torture United Kingdom