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UK minister arrives in Rwanda on 'publicity stunt' trip to discuss deportation deal

Suella Braverman arrived in Rwanda on Saturday to meet with President Paul Kagame, who is under international pressure over rebel group sponsorship and the conviction of Paul Rusesabagina
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman arrives in Rwanda on Saturday 18 March (Anadolu Agency)

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman arrived in Rwanda on Saturday to discuss an agreement between the two countries to deport asylum seekers who arrive in the UK to the east African country.

The talks come as the UK faces legal challenges and sharp criticism from campaigners over the deal, while Rwandan President Paul Kagame is under international pressure over his government's support of the M23 rebel group, which is accused of perpetuating summary killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Braverman will meet Kagame on her first visit to Rwanda, and said that the removal of migrants could be put into action shortly. The Rwandan president is also subject to pressure from the United States over the rendition, trial and conviction of Paul Rusesabagina, hero of the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda.

'This trip is another publicity stunt to keep the British government's cruel intentions, rather than its actual failures, in the news'

- Zoe Gardner, migration policy expert

The UK agreed to deport tens of thousands of migrants and refugees more than 4,000 miles away to Rwanda as part of a $146m deal last year, but no flights have taken off as the policy is being challenged in the courts.

The partnership is a major part of Britain's plans to detain and deport asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel, a proposal campaigners told Middle East Eye was "inhumane and unworkable", adding that it would criminalise the efforts of thousands of refugees.

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Earlier this week, 10 asylum seekers from a range of countries including Iran, Iraq and Syria won permission in a British court to challenge the UK's Rwanda policy.

All 10 have been threatened with removal to Rwanda. They argue that the government has failed to consider the dangers and risks of deporting them there, with the UN refugee agency UNHCR warning of Rwanda's poor track record of protecting refugees. The UN has also called Britain's new asylum bill a "clear breach" of international law. 

Deadly voyages

Many people travelling to Britain to seek asylum come from the Middle East. They take the perilous voyage by boat after paying professional smugglers - first from North Africa or the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, and then from northern France to the south coast of England.

One Iraqi refugee told MEE that his eight-day long boat passage from Turkey to Italy was the "worst experience of my life".

Most migrants and refugees make these journeys because of conflict in their home countries, political repression, climate disaster or economic hardship. Many have family in Britain, or other connections to the country.

When they arrive in the UK, the British government pays for them to be housed in hotels, detention centres or other facilities while their asylum claims are processed. This can often take years and the asylum seekers are not allowed to work during this time.

'If I wanted to go to Rwanda, I would go to Rwanda. I know which way the road to Rwanda is'

- Kurdish Iranian asylum seeker

One Kurdish refugee from Iran, speaking to MEE last summer at Napier barracks in Kent, said: "If I wanted to go to Rwanda, I would go to Rwanda. I know which way the road to Rwanda is."

Sonya Sceats, director of Freedom From Torture, told MEE that Suella Braverman was "jetting off on a showboat trip to Rwanda the very week that the Court of Appeal has accepted that there are serious questions to be answered over the legality of this government's cash-for-humans Rwanda scheme".

Zoe Gardner, a migration policy expert, called Braverman's visit to Rwanda "another publicity stunt to keep the British government's cruel intentions, rather than its actual failures, in the news".

Gardner said that the real impact of the British government's asylum bill "won't be to send any more than a handful of people to Rwanda".

"It will be to trap thousands of refugees in permanent limbo, homeless or locked up in huge penal colonies in our communities, or forced into the shadows at the mercy of criminal gangs," Gardner added.

"Rather than pushing through this inhumane and unworkable policy," Sonya Sceats said, "ministers should focus on establishing safe routes to the UK and tackling the unacceptable backlog of asylum claims, so people fleeing war and persecution can rebuild their lives with dignity."

Diplomatic support for Rwanda

Both the UK and Rwandan governments have sought to focus attention on what British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calls "breaking the business model of criminal people smuggling".

Speaking to MEE in December last year, Yolande Makolo, Rwandan government spokesperson, said that Rwanda stood "ready to offer asylum seekers and migrants safety and the opportunity to build a new life in Rwanda".

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Makolo told MEE that because of Rwanda's recent history - hundreds of thousands of people died in the country's devastating 1994 genocide - the African country was "committed to protecting vulnerable people around the world".

"We already provide refuge for over 130,000 refugees from multiple countries," Makolo said.

Rwanda plays a significant military role in its region, both as a sponsor of the M23 militia in eastern Congo and as a provider of counter-insurgency forces to Mozambique, Central African Republic and Benin. 

An Amnesty report in February found that "Rwandan-backed M23 rebels summarily killed men and raped dozens of women in eastern DRC late November 2022". 

“Kagame is under international pressure over his government’s sponsorship of M23 in eastern Congo,” Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, told MEE.

“But he has made his government useful to France by protecting French oil interests in Mozambique and to Britain by striking a cash-for-asylum deal that no other African country was prepared to sign up to.”

The Rwandan military is protecting workers for the French oil company Total in Mozambique. The UK tried to strike a similar asylum deal with Ghana and Kenya, but was turned down by both. 

Andrew Mitchell, a British foreign development minister who has long been a strong supporter of Rwanda, is known not to be in favour of Braverman's asylum deal.

Mitchell is expected in the Congolese capital Kinshasa - where there is great frustration over the UK-Rwanda deal - next week. 

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