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The West’s Refugee Gulag Archipelago

As Britain's deal with Rwanda shows, Western states are constructing a vast transnational apparatus of refugee prisons in post-colonial countries – offshoring the displaced to dystopian conditions devoid of rights.

Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel at the signing of the partnership with Rwanda. (Credit: Getty Images)

Since the early 1990s there has emerged a transnational gulag archipelago in which displaced people are cantoned into camps and centres in the post-colonial world. These centres are in part funded by Western states with a view to restricting the movement of peoples whose livelihoods have been destroyed into the West. The funding is centrally based in a security logic that has as its effects a militarisation of migration policy and a downgrading of human rights. Most strikingly, it has created a world in which millions of people exist in a state of non-citizenship, dependency, and radical uncertainty. It is hard to imagine a more disempowered state of being.

This is a process that extends across the West. The EU Partnership Framework on Migration connects European aid to logistical and legal measures in partner countries to hold migrants at Sahelian borders rather than allowing them to move through the complex and risky trans-Saharan conduits to the Mediterranean coast and then possibly into the EU. In 2017, Niger was the per capita largest recipient of aid in the world. It received money to introduce legal restrictions of movement, harder borders, return programmes, and material for its security services. Before its closure, the Dadaab complex of refugee camps accommodated as many as 450,000 refugees, mainly Somalis left in a condition of suspended expatriation.

Since 2001 (with a brief interregnum when the centres were closed) Australia has routed refugees coming by sea to the island of Nauru and its ‘regional processing centre,’ where people might remain for up to five years. It provided financial support to the Nauru government that effectively legislated for the suspended animation of asylum seekers who were travelling to Australia. In 2018, the US government offered to take some Nauru refugees. The US itself has a set of ‘lily pad’ centres to hold refugees: US Border Patrol has operations in Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, Peru, Panama, Belize, Mexico, Kenya, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Kosovo, Argentina, Honduras, Ecuador, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Guatemala.

This week, we discovered that Britain has signed a deal with the Rwandan government to re-route refugees to Rwanda. Boris Johnson said that the deal would potentially involve tens of thousands of people and also involve resettlement of approved asylum seekers in Rwanda itself. The announcement—presented through the Prime Minister and Home Secretary in ways that were deeply ambiguous—is part of the global cantonment strategy sketched above. As with Australia, the EU, and the US, aid and other funding is allocated to a remote country which in return commits to establish the architecture to hold hundreds of thousands of displaced people and subject them to a permanent state of securitised insecurity. And, most importantly, to keep them away from Western borders.

Rwanda: Cantonment State

This asylum gulag archipelago is part of a global order. It consists in a political strategy of holding pens into which the millions subjected to major distress in their lives are forcibly routed into a state of non-citizenship. The distinctions between legal and illegal, bogus and genuine, economic or political refugee status miss the point from which one should start: that civil war, state collapse, erosions of livelihoods, and manifold processes of dispossession have created a multitude whose embeddedness in a state-citizen relationship (however tenuous and difficult) has all but disappeared.

Narratives of emergency or exception misrepresent what are quite clearly structural features in global politics. This is why a transnational gulag archipelago has been constructed over thirty years. One can conceive of it as a diverse network of states whose governments observe the core prerequisites to act as host for cantonment. These prerequisites are: a willingness to change law and order practices to remove freedom of movement from those expatriated, in keeping with the strategic objectives of Western countries; an ability to act as a conduit for aid and military support to bolster the security mechanisms that stop the risk-taking, innovation, and energies of the displaced who endeavour to escape the cantonment system; an ability to generate political discourses of civilised hosting based in global humanitarian principles.

This global system of holding pens relies on two distinct and mutually-constituted forms of sovereignty: the Western nation or region that seeks a way to radically reduce immigration and the post-colonial nation that partners the West as a development and security solution. In this context, Rwanda fits the bill extremely well.

In 1994, when the current Rwandan government came to power, the first of the many crises it faced was a migration crisis. In fact, migration crises: returning Tutsis and Hutus from outside the country, internally-displaced Rwandans moving from one region to another. The UNHCR estimated that there were 1.2 million refugees in Zaïre, and 600,000 in Tanzania alone.

Return involved many different countries and many different sociologies of fleeing and return. Initially, and without a great deal of external aid, the new government did remarkably well at managing inflows, stabilising their spatial ordering, and keeping its borders relatively stable. Subsequently, the government established re-education (ingando) camps into which it poured tens of thousands of people defined through a grassroots courts system as complicit in some way or another in the genocide against the Tutsis, or of needing a new mindset. Rwanda processed people through a detention/education penal system which—while heavily authoritarian—completed a kind of étatiste transition beyond the genocide.

In short, Rwanda is a cantonment state par excellence. Through resettlement, the construction of refugee camps, and the re-education centres, it has internalised a core facet of its governance in the spatial ordering of those within its borders. More broadly, its planning of villages, re-naming of streets, and re-zoning of agrarian space all speak to the same political logic.

Western development and diplomatic staff involved in Rwanda like this about the government. During one of my research visits, I interviewed a senior manager of Bralirwa, part of the Heineken drinks manufacturer group. He showed me pictures he had taken of the tractors parked at the end of a days’ work on one of the agribusinesses that supplied maize to Bralirwa. They were perfectly aligned. He told me—with no little enthusiasm and with a mindset I have encountered many times in western expatriate circles in East Africa—how orderly the parking of the tractors was and how impressive it was in comparison with similar commercial farms in Kenya where tractors were parked chaotically.

Many Westerners who have researched Rwanda and interviewed Western expatriates will, I think, find this vignette familiar: the sense that Rwanda is uniquely and exceptionally orderly. This aesthetic of modernity, the internal discipline within the apparatus of the state, the bureaucratic culture of target setting. All of these phenomena present to expatriates a kind of comity: a sense of shared purpose, a resolution of the often adversarial core of relations between vulnerable former colonies and intervening donors and agenda-setters. Everyone is taking the project or plan seriously.

It is unsurprising, then, that the British government finds in Rwanda a near-perfect partner for its own contribution to the transnational gulag archipelago. It fits the bill. A state forged in effective spatial ordering; a government adept at sustaining donor support; and a country that will likely generate an orderly, well-audited, transparent, and well-presented system of reception, processing, cantoning, and possibly resettling of people from all over the world into what is historically a state defined by successions of settlement and resettlement.

Visit Rwanda, obey the rules, receive support, and stay unless given permission otherwise. This is the expectation of the British government.

Disaster Foretold

However, this expectation is naïve in the extreme. In fact, like so many initiatives that have emanated from the current government, it has the real risk of falling apart quickly and looking ludicrous.

Most importantly, there is the obvious imposition of suffering that the agreement implies. The government argues that the measure is purposefully unpleasant, a deterrent. But, it is unlikely to work as a deterrent because, as we have already noted, stress immigration is not best understood as an undertaking made by individuals or families according to perceived incentives and disincentives. It is structured into the dynamics of sovereignty and capitalism, manifested in insecurities and penuries experienced by millions. Trafficking is a symptom of a deeper process and making things harder simply means, well, making things harder, not stopping the flows.

If one is prepared to discount the suffering experiences of refuge seeking then one might argue that this measure is a necessary one, a ‘least worst’ solution to a pressing problem. But, it isn’t. And this is because the partnership itself is high risk, ambiguous, and unsustainable.

One part of the account of the Rwandan government’s obsession with order-through-space that I have not yet mentioned is the authoritarianism that enables and dynamises it. There have been controversial and endlessly debated cases of alleged mass atrocity by the Rwandan state, most infamously the Kibeho refugee camp where evidence suggests thousands of internally displaced people were shot by the Rwandan military. There is the tiered surveillance of citizens and state officials that cascades down to groups of ten residences and might concern the use of roofing materials or footwear. There is the shutting down of media and civil society, alleged assassinations (at home and abroad).

One might suppose that all of this would not apply to re-routed refugees, that they might escape the difficult post-genocide ethnic politics of Rwanda’s statehood. But there are good reasons to expect otherwise. The Rwandan government understands very well the political advantages of presenting an attractive shop window to influential and wealthy states. It will want the project to work, and ideally to work better than expected.

This was a constant refrain from Rwandan officials and Western donors in my interviews: the project was successful and completed ahead of time. One can expect re-routed refugees to be treated as a political resource, socially engineered into order, surveilled, and contained. And, people being people, when they aim to move without permission, to escape the gaze of the state, to complain, to rebel, there is every reasonable expectation that they will experience the same forces of the state that others have in moments of social upheaval.

In that moment—whether witnessed by Western media or not—the idiocy of the policy will be exposed as those who moved from, say, Syria find themselves as stateless and brutalised as ever before and wish for nothing more than the possibility to escape, to rejoin the stateless multitudes and try again.

And it gets worse. Rwanda’s relations with the West and Britain are not entirely cosy. ‘Partnership’ is code for a kind of adversarial-aid relationship in which the Rwandan government has significant moments of rejection and rebellion against the West. Even earlier this month, Rwandan President Paul Kagame stated that ‘there are three systems that govern the world, one is called democracy, the other is called autocracy, the third in between—most powerful, very silent, effective—and that is hypocrisy’ with the latter being Western states.

The Rwandan government is not stupid, docile, or weak. It receives donor money for projects but guards its sovereignty jealously. This project, once established, is leverage. If human rights criticisms of Rwanda emerge, this project is security for the Rwandan government that will have been working closely with its partner, the British government, to solve the global refugee crisis. I can easily imagine the discourse: we Rwandans understand what it is to be dislocated, subject to tyranny. That is why we have worked with the UK to bring safe haven to thousands of displaced people… and now you, you Westerners who did not assist us during the genocide have the temerity to accuse us of human rights violations? Anyone who, as I have, has read a great many public statements by President Kagame and the elite around him will surely find this kind of rhetoric familiar.

And, there’s more. It is a banality of elite wrist-wringing about refugees that the refugees themselves are empty vessels. Numbers. Burdens. Generically a threat. But, in reality, they are not. They are all people with agency and history. Crossing a sovereign border under extreme stress is a remarkable exercise in agency. All detailed studies of refugees show the same pattern: multi-sited moves from town to city, from city to border, in transit to another city, possible connection to kin or contacts, another move, an appeal to border authorities or the dipping into a covert conduit into a destination state.

Thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have embarked on this journey, most often moving into neighbouring countries in the region but also further afield. According to the UK Census of 2001, 8,500 citizens of the DRC were resident in the UK. And there will be more that the Census did not pick up. Imagine for a moment that those people moved here through the typical multi-stage and dreadfully fearful journeys of most people seeking refuge. Recall that the main driver of mass displacement in the DRC in the 2000s was the Rwandan army. Now imagine that, as a Congolese, if you arrive in the UK now or are discovered as an ‘illegal’ resident, you are renditioned to Rwanda, home of the military that caused your displacement.

This has not happened yet of course. But, it is the aim of the British government that the more effective its efforts are, the more likely it is that this will happen. We know that the government has returned people to countries that they fled from, handcuffed and led onto planes. So, this has not happened but, if all goes to plan, it will. This is a level of callousness that is difficult to encapsulate in words.

The global gulag archipelago is a well-established response to the collapse of order in many states around the world and the destabilising and impoverishing effects of capitalism’s relentless lurching from crisis to crisis. It is a global and systemic phenomena that has generated a form of intergovernmentalism based in the setting up of transnational human holding pens for those who no longer enjoy the minimal political safety of citizenship.

The British government’s project with Rwanda is part of this, articulated as a partnership to deal with a crisis glossed as exception, not structural phenomenon. And, in the low-grade political calculus of the current government, the muscularity of Rwanda’s social engineering, and the naiveté of the current government in relation to the political nous of the Rwandan government, the entire project looks like that most abysmal of political phenomena: if its fails it will be a disaster, and it if it succeeds it will be worse.