Unease as Rwanda prepares for the arrival of migrants from the UK

  • Written by Barbara Plett Asher
  • BBC Africa correspondent, Rwanda

Image source, Kayla Hermansen/BBC

Comment on the photo, South Sudanese asylum seeker Daniel Dew was sent to Rwanda from Libya after trying to reach Europe seven times

Hope Hostel in Rwanda was ready to take in unwanted British immigrants for 664 days.

Now, as the UK government seeks to approve the legislation, the Rwandan government wants to fill these echo chambers and halls within weeks.

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

UK courts have put Kigali's human rights record in the spotlight by demanding greater protection for those sent here.

Meanwhile, Rwanda has been meticulously preparing 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 manager Ismail Bakina. The bedrooms are carefully designed and furnished with details such as prayer rugs and toiletries.

Gardeners trim the hedges of the lush green grounds that include a soccer field and basketball court, while chefs and cleaners are busy with a surreal performance of their duties.

There is also a tent with rows of chairs waiting to process migrants' applications for asylum in Rwanda. If they are not eligible, they will still be eligible for residence permits. Or they can try to go to another country, but not return to the UK.

“Even if they arrive now, today and not tomorrow, we are able to shelter them,” he says. “We are maintaining our 100% readiness.”

Comment on the photo, The Hope Inn is eerily empty, but the Rwandan government wants to fill its rooms within weeks

Through the hostel's windows you can see the rolling hills of Kigali's elegant neighbourhoods. It is a beautiful city and its streets are organized and safe from crime. “Rwanda Works” is the country’s slogan.

Some newcomers may be looking for jobs here, but there are conflicting opinions about whether Rwanda needs new workers.

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

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

“But where will you find jobs for these people?” another man asks. “We have graduated ourselves but have not got jobs yet. We are looking for jobs there.”

He did not want to reveal his identity as he spoke of a point of view that opposes government policy, reflecting a wave of fear in the country.

Image source, Phil Davies/BBC

Comment on the photo, Some critics of the scheme are afraid to voice dissent

There are widespread allegations that the authorities are suppressing dissent. Critics include human rights agencies, the political opposition, and even assessments conducted by the British Foreign Office in 2021.

She told the BBC: “They are people who fled their country, because of poverty, because of war, and because of the dictatorships that exist in their country.”

“And they will come to a country where they will face the same problems, where they cannot express themselves freely, and where they will not have the luxury they seek in the UK.

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

The Rwandan government strongly denies this.

Its Parliament issued a law to address the concerns of the British Supreme Court. This included agreeing to ratify a recent treaty with the UK to strengthen protection for asylum seekers, including guarantees that they will not be returned to the countries from which they fled.

The senior official responsible for the UK deal, Doris Oficiza-Pickard, asked whether migrants would be able to criticize the government and organize protests if they wanted to.

“Our national laws are very clear regarding the right to protest, which is protected in specific circumstances,” she said.

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

But she added: “You have to remember that refugees in general, and in terms of the political activities of refugees, they are restricted under the Refugee Convention.”

Rwanda has welcomed other asylum seekers, often pointing to the transit center south of Kigali as evidence of its ability to take good care of them.

It is a temporary refuge for vulnerable people while they sort out next steps. They can choose to settle in Rwanda. No one did, says camp director Fares Royombo.

“I can't get a job here”

Daniel Dew is grateful to be here after horrific experiences. He is a tall, thin young man from South Sudan with 11 brothers and sisters, who left his village to find work so he could help take care of his family.

Dio attempted to cross the sea from Libya to Italy seven times, and says he ended up in prison each time he was sent back.

He has his sights set on North America now.

“I can't get a job here,” he says.

“There are not many jobs as I see because I spent five months here. But I always pray for the chance to get out of Rwanda.”

When I asked him how he would feel if he were sent here after arriving in Europe, he let out a heavy sigh and said I hope God will protect him from that.

For the migrants in the transit center, and those yet to come, it is all about the search for a better future. Will Rwanda be a turning point, a dead end, or a new home for them?

More on the UK-Rwanda asylum deal:

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