Ground the Whole Rwanda Plan

Stopping last night's deportation flight was a victory for activists across the country who fought to defend asylum seeker rights. Now it's time for the scheme itself to be scrapped.

Rwanda deportation flight EC-LZO Boeing 767 at Boscombe Down Air Base, on 14 June 2022 in Boscombe Down. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

The UK government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda seemed close to taking off yesterday. After an unsuccessful series of legal challenges to stop the first flight transporting migrants to the East African country, a plane was still set to leave carrying seven deportees, compared to an initial count of over 130 people. Most had already been removed through successful individual legal cases. A last-minute ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) brought it, at last, to a complete halt.

Following its late intervention, the ECHR clarified that it was an ‘urgent interim measure’ and an exceptional one in the case of an Iraqi man. The ruling reportedly also allowed lawyers for the last six deportees to make successful applications. Protestors had also gathered outside the Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow Airport, blocking the road in an attempt to prevent coaches leaving with the deportees onboard.

The planned flight has been a centre of media focus for weeks, alongside the contentious scheme itself, announced back in April, which the Tories insist is a solution to the ‘crisis’ of migrants crossing the Channel and will disrupt ‘evil smuggling gangs’. Groups that have disputed this narrative, including campaigners, lawyers, refugee charities, and the PCS union (representing Border Force staff)—who say it’s immoral and illegal—have been consistently attacked in the right-wing press.

These attacks have come alongside the uncritical promotion of Rwanda in a way most typified last week by a Daily Mail feature describing the ‘joy and gratitude’ of other refugees arriving there—as seen in a Rwandan government video—and presenting the accommodation awaiting UK asylum seekers as a luxury holiday resort. But the speed with which the historic opposition of the right-wing press to the laying-on of basic amenities for asylum seekers—let alone luxuries—has been dispersed might give readers pause to consider the reality on the ground.

A ‘Safe Haven’?

The Telegraph also ran a piece by Rwanda’s High Commissioner to the UK, Johnston Busingye, describing the country as a ‘safe haven’ and dismissing criticism of Rwanda as ‘outdated’. Busingye called Rwanda ‘exactly the right choice of partner’ for the ‘innovative partnership with the UK’, under which it will receive £120 million to accept asylum seekers.

Busingye was formerly Rwanda’s justice minister, and his appointment as High Commissioner to the UK last year was itself controversial in the light of international condemnation following the alleged abduction, torture, and imprisonment of high-profile government opponent Paul Rusesabagina, who was subsequently sentenced to twenty-five years in a trial with multiple irregularities. Leading the campaign to sue Rwanda is Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba, who has reportedly been the victim of constant Pegasus malware surveillance, according to Amnesty International.

Busingye was recorded by Al Jazeera admitting the Rwandan government’s involvement in Rusesabagina’s unsolicited ‘transfer’ to Rwanda after legally residing in the US for many years. Rusesabagina had been a critic of the autocratic government of Paul Kagame, the military leader and president who has run Rwanda for almost three decades. A recent book by journalist and regional expert Michela Wrong also exposes the assassination of regime critic Patrick Karegeya, and the violence she sees behind Kagame’s regime.

Kagame has a relationship with the Tory Party, principally through MP Andrew Mitchell, who’s been a defender of the Rwandan government since the 2000s—although he too has judged the offshoring scheme unworkable and ‘hideously expensive’. More recently, Rwanda has expanded its international profile, partly thanks to increasing tourism (boosted by a sponsoring partnership with Arsenal Football Club) and its admission to the UK Commonwealth, alongside the UK-Rwanda partnership.

But with the new international spotlight has come inevitably greater international scrutiny. Reports by Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists describe a persistent network of intimidation that’s prevented independent journalism in Rwanda for over two decades. Last year, there were the arrests, prosecutions, and, in one case, a disappearance affecting at least eight Rwandans who had discussed local politics on YouTube. Other cases of the vanished or mysteriously dead include poet Innocent Bahati, rapper ‘Jay Polly’, songwriter Kizito Mihigo, cardiologist Emmanuel Gasakure, genocide survivor Jean-Paul Mwiseneza, editor Jean-Léonard Rugambage, and deputy green party leader André Kagwa Rwisereka.

Maybe the Telegraph avoided pressing the ex-justice minister on these cases because none are referenced by the UK government in its country policy and information notes, which do at least manage to acknowledge high risk presented to people engaging in political expression in Rwanda. The Tories evidently don’t consider asylum seekers part of this category. They do, however, concede an awareness of reports of ‘excess force’ used against asylum seekers in 2018, resulting in ‘a number arrested and killed’. Human Rights Watch goes into more detail: Rwandan police shot dead at least twelve unarmed refugees in late February 2018 outside an UNHCR office. They were protesting a 25 percent cut in their World Food Programme food rations.

The Rwandan government hasn’t specified the number killed in 2018, or who was responsible for the deaths. But either way, this information points to the final, critical question the press should be asking of Busingye or the Home Office: if refugees can be murdered outside a UN building by Rwandan police without a single arrest or prosecution, can the country be called a ‘safe haven’?

A Deterrent?

This analysis, of course, assumes in good faith that the government genuinely believes Rwanda to be the haven it describes, even as it also refers to the scheme as a ‘deterrent’. All of this information was already known before yesterday’s flight was scheduled to take off. A fuller hearing over the lawfulness of the offshoring scheme is now slated for next month, and predictably, the Tories will try to blame charities, the judiciary, and the ECHR for their current embarrassment, and use it as an opportunity to deepen their characterisation of these groups as enemies of the people. Some have suggested this was the plan all along. In light of the role played by demonstrators in this and another recent defeat for the Home Office in South London, we should perhaps expect the crackdown on protest to deepen, too.

In the meantime, beyond the Tories’ cynical PR ploys, there remains a real solution to the Channel crossings dilemma. ‘We’ve told the government time and again what would prevent perilous crossings and save lives—safe routes for people seeking sanctuary here,’ Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, explains. ‘We know this is possible. Though our government’s response has been slow and imperfect, Ukrainian refugees are able to apply for visas to the UK online.

‘Sadly they seem entirely unwilling to open safe routes for black and brown refugees fleeing danger, and trying to reach family members here. They have closed the Syrian resettlement scheme. The Afghan resettlement scheme has completely stalled, and they have refused to introduce humanitarian visas, which would grant people in need of protection safe passage here. If this government were serious about tackling exploitation and providing sanctuary to people who need it, it would establish regulated routes to asylum in the UK now.’

Given that ‘hopes and prayers’ are partly what drive asylum seekers to travel hundreds of miles to the UK’s coastline, it’s difficult to see how they would be ‘deterred’ from crossing the Channel when they know they no longer have anything to lose. Regardless, Home Secretary Priti Patel has vowed that ‘preparation for the next flight begins now.’ At least those with a hand in grounding the plane, and fighting for the people who arrive on British shores to be treated with the basic decency and compassion owed any human, will be preparing too.