Unease as Rwanda gears up for arrival of UK migrants

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South Sudanese asylum seeker Daniel Diew was sent to Rwanda from Libya after trying to reach Europe seven times
By Barbara Plett Usher
BBC Africa correspondent, Rwanda

Hope Hostel in Rwanda has been ready to receive Britain’s unwanted migrants for 664 days.

Now, after the UK Parliament approved the legislation, the Rwandan government wants to fill these echoing rooms and halls within a matter of weeks.

Rwanda has largely stood back and watched the legal wrangling in Britain over the controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to this East African country.

UK courts have put Kigali’s human rights record in the spotlight by demanding more protections for those sent here.

In the meantime, Rwanda has meticulously prepared for their arrival since June 2022, two months after the deal was agreed.

I got a tour of the eerily empty hostel in the capital, Kigali, from the manager, Ismael Bakina. Its bedrooms are laid out with care, furnished with details like prayer rugs and toiletries.

Gardeners trim the hedges of the lushly green grounds that boast a football pitch and basketball court, while cooks and cleaners busy themselves in a surreal performance of their duties.

There is also a tent with rows of chairs waiting to process the migrants’ applications for asylum in Rwanda. If they don’t qualify they’ll still be eligible for residence permits. Or they could try to go to another country, but not back to the UK.

Mr Bakina tells me the hostel is ready to start operations at a moment’s notice.

“Even if they arrived now, today not tomorrow, we are able to accommodate them,” he says. “We are keeping our readiness 100%.”

The Hope Hostel is eerily empty but the Rwandan government wants to fill its rooms within weeks

Through the windows of the hostel you can see the rolling hills of Kigali’s tidy neighbourhoods. It is a beautiful city with streets that are orderly and safe from crime. “Rwanda works” is the country’s motto.

Some of the new arrivals may seek jobs here, but there are mixed views about whether Rwanda needs new workers.

“I think it will be good economically for the nation,” says Emmanuel Kanimba, the owner of a restaurant in Kigali.

“I know they will provide human capital, they will also produce goods and services and also consume. [Then there are the] new ideas they might bring to our economy.”

“But where are you going to find the jobs for these people?” asks another man. “We ourselves have graduated but we have not yet secured jobs. We are out there searching for jobs.”

He did not want to be identified talking about a view that opposed government policy, reflecting an undertow of fear in the country.

Some critics of the scheme are fearful about expressing dissent

There are widespread allegations that the authorities suppress dissent. The critics include human rights agencies, the political opposition, even assessments by the UK’s Foreign Office as recently as 2021.

Victoire Ingabire, the outspoken opposition figure once jailed on charges of threatening state security, has used her case to argue that the asylum seekers are getting a bad deal.

“They are people who fled their country, because of poverty, because of war, because of the dictatorships they have in their country,” she told the BBC.

“And they will come to a country where they will face the same problems, where they cannot express themselves for free, where they will not have the wellbeing they are looking for in the UK.

“I don’t understand why the British government wants absolutely to send these people to Rwanda.”

The Rwandan government strongly denies this.

And its parliament has passed a law to address the concerns of Britain’s Supreme Court. This involved approving ratification of a recent treaty with the UK to strengthen protections for asylum seekers, including guarantees that they would not be sent back to the countries they’d fled.

BBC
Our national laws are very clear about the right to protest, it is protected under specific circumstances

I asked the top official in charge of the UK deal, Doris Uwicyeza Picard, whether the migrants would be able to criticise the government and hold protests if they wanted to.

“Our national laws are very clear about the right to protest, it is protected under specific circumstances,” she said.

“If they do wish to protest peacefully within the confines of the law, they’re welcome.”

But, she added, “you have to remember that refugees in general, and with regard to the political activities of refugees, they’re restricted by the Refugee Convention”.

Rwanda has welcomed other asylum seekers, and often points to a transit centre south of Kigali as proof that it can take care of them very well.

This is a camp that houses Africans who were stuck in Libya, trying to get to Europe, and is administered by the UN’s refugee agency.

It is a temporary haven for vulnerable people while they sort out next steps. They could choose to settle in Rwanda. None have, says the camp manager, Fares Ruyumbu.

‘I’m not able to get a job here’

Daniel Diew is grateful to be here after harrowing experiences. He is a tall thin young man from South Sudan with 11 brothers and sisters, and left his village to find work so he could help care for the family.

Mr Diew tried seven times to cross the sea from Libya to Italy, and says he landed in prison each time he was sent back.

He has his sights set on North America now.

“I’m not able to get a job here,” he says.

“There aren’t plenty of jobs as I see because I’ve spent five months here. But I always pray hard to get the chance to get out of Rwanda.”

When I ask him how he would feel if he had been sent here after making it to Europe, he lets out a heavy sigh and says hopefully God would protect him from that.

For the migrants at the transit centre, and for those still to come, this is all about seeking a better future. Will Rwanda be a detour for them, a dead end or a new home?

More on the UK-Rwanda asylum deal:

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