It was one morning in August 2020, when Carine Kanimba first heard the news of her father’s kidnapping. She was in Washington, DC, with her sisters. After a few missed calls, her brother in Boston finally reached them to drop the news: “Dad is in Rwanda.”
They couldn’t believe it, so he told them to turn on the news. Across multiple channels, news networks such as CNN were covering the story of the day: Paul Rusesabagina, whose story of rescuing more than 1,000 people during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide was made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, had arrived in Kigali, the capital, where he was arrested and charged with nine counts of terrorism.
Kanimba doesn’t believe this is the true reason her father faces these charges. “After the movie came out, my father became critical of the regime,” she said.
In April 2022, the governments of Rwanda and the United Kingdom signed the Migration and Economic Development Partnership, a plan to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel to the East African nation, in exchange for additional development funding.
Included in the partnership is the initial investment of £120 million by the UK, “to boost the development of Rwanda, including jobs, skills and opportunities to benefit both migrants and host communities,” according to the British Home Office.
The deal has prompted significant backlash across borders, from global advocacy groups, church leaders and human rights activists.
“Rwanda can say they’re a compassionate nation,” said Claude Gatebuke, executive director for the African Great Lakes Action Network, and a survivor of the genocide. He calls this collaboration between both nations “a legalized human trafficking deal.” The Rwandan government benefits from a boost in public relations on the global stage, he contends, while the UK gets to keep out travelers it may deem undesirable: African and Asian migrants.
Gatebuke is grateful in seeing the backlash the deal has wrought within the UK, across various levels of society. “In Rwanda, you can’t take a stand against it, because people have no rights.”
By June, the first flight set to take asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda was stopped after the European Court of Human Rights issued a last-minute injunction to block the deportation, due to security concerns. Other asylum seekers were able to petition British courts to evade expulsion.
The Rwandan government has a history of suppressing dissent from critics inside the country and abroad, either via intimidation tactics, kidnappings or assassinations, said Constance Mutimukeye, a survivor of the genocide now living in France. This has been the case in many neighboring African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa.
She brings up the case of Guillaume Rutembesa, a Rwandan human rights activist and blogger. “He criticized the very luxurious life of the children of Paul Kagame, who buy themselves bags from Hermès, when in fact the population is starving,” said Mutimukeye. Rutembesa had been living in Kenya since 2016, after being granted asylum. He was abducted from Nairobi in November 2020, and hasn’t been heard from since.
She also mentions the situation of Cassien Ntamuhanga, a Rwandan journalist and founder of an opposition movement, who disappeared after being apprehended by Mozambican police in May 2021. He fled to the capital, Maputo, in 2018, where he was awaiting refugee status determination by local authorities, after escaping prison in Rwanda for a prior conviction against the government. Ntamuhanga’s current whereabouts are unknown.
“Rwanda has been the source of a lot of instability in Central Africa,” said Anjan Sundaram, a freelance journalist who has reported from the country, and written a book on the destruction of free speech and the rise of dictatorship within its borders. Rwanda’s two invasions of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s triggered the Congo Wars, an ongoing conflict that has left more than five million people dead, either directly from the war or from war-induced hunger and disease.
Half of Rwanda’s budget is still financed by foreign aid, so the £120 million down payment from the UK will likely benefit the infrastructure, hotels and facilities the asylum seekers will presumably be using, Sundaram speculates.
Slightly bigger than Sicily, Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and already has some 127,000 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR. Just over 38% of the population live below the poverty line and 35% of children under the age of five suffer chronic malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.
“The UK has been referred to as a friend of ‘the New Rwanda’, the Rwanda that emerged after the genocide in 1994,” said Filip Reyntjens, a professor at the University of Antwerp who specializes in the contemporary history of the Great Lakes region of Africa. Great Britain had no presence in Rwanda prior to that year: no development aid was being sent, and although there was a consulate at the time, there wasn’t even a British embassy established in Kigali. The UK—in addition to other European countries—feels guilt from its retractive policy during the infamous genocide, he said.
Rwanda’s economy is largely informal, and its job market is excessively small. Eighty percent of the population is involved in subsistence agriculture, Reyntjens adds, so the UK’s initial investment via the migrant deal is huge relative to Rwanda’s economy.
“I think Rwanda, historically, has presented itself as a problem-solver to the international community, broadly speaking,” said Scott Straus, a professor at UC Berkeley whose research focuses on genocide, violence, human rights and African politics. He said that Rwanda cleaned up its image in the past 28 years since the Genocide, but calls the current government a “transformative authoritarian state.”
Strauss added that the East African nation stands to gain diplomatic points for assisting the UK with what the latter considers to be an intractable problem and that the current Rwandan government can use this boost in reputation to deflect criticism of its own domestic policies.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Britain helped design, asylum seekers have “the right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions, and the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state.”
The UK, along with the US, are symbolically powerful countries, said Maurizio Albahari, a professor at the University of Notre Dame whose research focuses on migrant and refugee mobility and antiracist democratic engagements. “And so, it goes without saying that if the self-described beacon of democracy does something, other governments will feel morally authorized to do something similar,” he continued, “and if it is not Rwanda, maybe another country somewhere else.”
Albahari said dozens of anti-migrant agreements are already in place across developed countries, but none as drastic as the one between Rwanda and the UK. Rwanda is seen as a “miracle” compared to its neighbors, and there is a public relations component to the Migration and Economic Development Partnership.
If it were to be successful after a five-year trial period, the pact could become great political capital domestically, for both the Tory government in the UK and the Kagame regime in Rwanda.