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Opinion Why Britain’s deal with Rwanda on migrants is so repulsive

A member of the British Border forces and another man help a child to disembark from a boat with other migrants, in Dover, England, on April 18. (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

We knew the global refugee system was broken. But Britain, with Rwanda’s help, wants to smash it with a hammer.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel last week announced a plan to fly migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement, this being the Johnson government’s answer to the thousands who have lately arrived across the English Channel from mainland Europe. For its trouble, Rwanda would get around $157 million for housing, job training and other services. Patel termed this a “joint new migration and economic development partnership.“

That’s a very posh way of saying: We are going to pay a poorer country to take human beings we don’t want.

Of course, trafficking vulnerable people to and from Africa and its former territories overseas has been something of a historical pastime for Britain. There’s also nothing new about wealthy countries (which at last count take in only 15 percent of the world’s more than 26 million refugees) outsourcing their humanitarian responsibilities to poorer countries (which take in around 85 percent of the world’s refugees).

And, yes, I’m calling this “trafficking.” What word better describes the shipping of vulnerable people, against their will and from one continent to another, for the benefit not of those people themselves but of the parties at either end of the transaction? In her speech announcing the deal, Patel railed against “evil smugglers” and argued that this “innovative” and “groundbreaking” plan will save lives. But the way that Britain, in seeking to defend the indefensible, is working so hard to cast the plan as anti-trafficking suggests to me it knows what it’s doing all too well.

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As rich nations increasingly flout international agreements on the treatment of people seeking shelter, poorer countries with bad human rights records and struggling economies are given an opening to use refugees and asylum seekers to secure development aid and other perks.

Enter Rwanda. In Western circles, the country has crafted an image of African progress and modernity. It presents itself as a place with clean streets, a high number of women in government and a welcoming business climate.

Rwanda has also sought to define itself as a country willing to help Africa chart a more self-sufficient path. Several years ago, it made headlines globally for refusing to accept secondhand clothing imports from the West. In 2018, Kigali hosted the signing ceremony for the historic African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

But the country’s economy was hit hard by the pandemic. And under dictatorial President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has a well-documented history of human rights abuses, including politically motivated killings, jailing political opponents, forced disappearances, torture and inhumane conditions in detention centers. Exiled opponents of Kagame’s regime have been killed under mysterious circumstances. Rwanda itself is a source of refugees and exiles.

Now, in bilateral migrant-dumping agreements, Rwanda appears to be carving out a new trade niche for itself. In 2014, Haaretz reported that Israel sent thousands of African asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda in a secret scheme. The Danish government is in dialogue with Rwanda over an arrangement like the one Britain is pursuing.

As the atrocity in Ukraine unfolds, Rwanda could have been a leader in calling for tolerance and compassion toward refugees, especially considering that April is the anniversary of the beginning of its own genocide. Instead, we’re talking about Rwanda’s human rights abuses, and how it is helping European politicians play to xenophobic impulses within their populations.

In exchange for that, Britain is doing Rwanda’s image-laundering. Patel tweeted slick videos and produced op-eds praising Rwanda as a humanitarian haven with a “strong record of providing safety to those fleeing danger,” citing in particular Rwanda’s hosting almost 130,000 refugees and taking in evacuees from Libya.

A record of safety? Rwandan political figures and others who fled the country for their safety would beg to differ.

And many of those 130,000 refugees are from neighboring African countries, not 4,500 miles away. And the evacuation of refugees from Libya was done in conjunction with the African Union and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees during a conflict situation, not at the behest of a European country wishing to keep desperate people out for domestic political reasons.

If this deal goes through, will these asylum seekers become bargaining chips and shields against international criticism? This was the case with Turkey, which repeatedly threatened to release Syrian refugees into Europe if it didn’t get its way with the European Union. What’s to stop more countries from trying the same thing?

States trading migrants for political gain and development aid is little better than smugglers moving people for petty cash. There is nothing compassionate about Britain stripping people of their international right to seek asylum. And there is nothing noble about countries such as Rwanda essentially offering themselves up as penal colonies for people whom other countries deem illegal.