Britain’s recent decision to send some migrants to Rwanda is questioned by several people resettled in this tiny East African country who say it is not a suitable refuge.
One Eritrean refugee who was deported from Israel to Rwanda in 2015 said he found the country “too difficult” and moved his family to South Sudan, which promised better economic opportunities than Rwanda even though it was gripped by civil war at the time.
Berhani, 35, who gave only his first name to avoid possible reprisals, said he knows many other Eritreans resettled in Rwanda who have since left to make new homes in neighboring African countries or in Europe.
Questions are swirling around the suitability of Rwanda as a shelter for migrants following Britain’s announcement earlier this month that it will send to Rwanda migrants arriving in the U.K. illegally as stowaways on trucks or small boats. Their asylum claims will be processed in Rwanda and, if successful, they will stay there.
The new policy is already being challenged in Britain’s courts by a rights group that says it is unlawful.
Rwanda already is home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries such as Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta told reporters after signing the agreement with British Home Secretary Priti Patel in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, on April 14.
The plan has been criticized by rights groups and others who say it is cruel, expensive and unworkable. The U.N. refugee agency has described it as “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.”
And the view of some refugees who years ago were resettled in Rwanda against their wishes is often far from rosy.
Rwandan authorities in recent years have given asylum to hundreds of people seeking shelter as a result of arrangements with Israel, the African Union, the United Nations and others. Many were from Eritrea and Ethiopia, including a group that had languished for months in detention centers in Libya.
Rwanda’s agreement to take migrants that Britain deems illegal appears to ignore the country’s own challenges.
The small country has about 13 million people, making it the most densely populated in Africa. Competition for land and resources contributed to decades of ethnic and political tensions that culminated in the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and the moderate Hutu who tried to protect them were killed.
President Paul Kagame’s government has achieved significant economic progress since the genocide, but critics say it has come at the cost of political repression. Obedience to authorities is widely enforced, one reason Rwandan cities and towns are clean and among the most orderly anywhere in Africa. There is little political opposition.
Human Rights Watch has accused Rwandan authorities of targeting poor people in the arbitrary arrests of street vendors, sex workers, homeless people, suspected petty criminals and street children.
Some migrants who spoke to AP said they were frightened to be jobless in Rwanda and without opportunities to eke out a living.
Berhani, the refugee from Eritrea, said he ended up in the streets of Kigali looking for a job, dependent on friends for food and rent. “Life is difficult in Rwanda when you don’t have a job,” he said.
“Some of my friends have managed to go back to Europe. One of my relatives has settled in Canada,” said Berhani. “One day, hopefully, I will manage to join them in Canada.”
In the Gashora camp for refugees in Rwanda’s east, one man said he was one of hundreds of migrants sent from Libya who still plan to reach Europe.
“Many have left for Sweden already,” he said on condition of anonymity for his safety. He said he would leave “even if it means death,” saying refugees in the camp often don’t have adequate food and clothing.
But some migrants in Kigali appear to have settled in well.
Frezghi Alazar, an Eritrean who co-owns a bakery, said he is grateful Rwanda gave him a “chance to thrive over the last 10 years.”
He spoke of the country as a bastion of order. “When you have capital and you start a business, nobody will come and take your business,” he said. “You don’t need to bribe people here. There is security. So, there is some benefit in Rwanda.”
It remains unclear when the first migrants from Britain will arrive in Rwanda following the deal with the British government, which said the plan will discourage people from making dangerous attempts to cross the English Channel.
Rwandan authorities said the agreement would initially last for five years, with the British government paying 120 million pounds ($158 million) upfront to pay for housing and integrating the migrants. They have not said how they would deal with a possible influx when the program gets underway.
Plans to accommodate some of the migrants in a hostel in Kigali have upset a group of genocide survivors who have lived in the property for years. They spoke of short notice, raising the possibility of conflict with locals.
“The migrants will cause land conflict with the citizens and we must avoid this situation,” Frank Habineza, an opposition figure and lawmaker, told the AP.
Other critics raise tough questions, including what becomes of migrants who fail to qualify for refugee status in Rwanda.
“Will Rwanda transport them to (their) home countries?” said Tom Mulisa, a Kigali-based lawyer and human rights researcher. “Resettlement of migrants who fail the refugee status criteria should be (carefully considered). The responsibility lies to the host state in case they fail to pass the threshold of asylum-seeking.”