The government of Rwanda announced earlier this month what it described as a “migration and economic development partnership” with the United Kingdom, in which the U.K. claims it would send migrants who had reached British territory to Rwanda for processing of their asylum claims for possible settlement in the U.K. But in practical terms, the asylum seekers will be transported to Rwanda permanently. Almost immediately after the agreement was announced, it came under fire, with critics calling London’s role in it a legally dubious violation of international humanitarian norms that treats human beings like commodities, all to help the U.K. “outsource its refugee problems.”
But while much of the commentary has justifiably focused on the U.K.’s incentives for proposing the partnership, scant attention has been paid to Kigali’s motivations for agreeing to it. A good place to start is Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s desire to bolster the country’s international image and rebut criticism of his human rights record, while also strengthening ties with the Anglophone world.
While specific details of the agreement have yet to be finalized, under the five-year deal, the U.K. will send some asylum-seekers arriving via the English Channel to the East African country, where, if their claims are rejected, they would be offered the choice between voluntarily resettling or returning to their home countries. The U.K. government has earmarked an up-front payment to Rwanda of £120 million, or approximately $160 million, and will reportedly pick up the operational costs of the program. Kagame pushed back at criticism of the agreement during remarks he made at a virtual seminar hosted last week by Brown University’s Watson Institute, saying that his government’s choice to partner with the U.K. to resettle asylum-seekers was “an innovation that Rwanda put forth to deal with this migration issue.” In announcing the deal, the government said it “reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protecting vulnerable people, a principle which always governs the international policy of our government.” And in a joint press conference in Kigali alongside Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, British Home Secretary Priti Patel praised the East African country as possessing “one of the strongest records of refugee resettlement.” Both Kagame and Biruta have alluded to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and the considerable toll the tragedy took on the country’s population, including massive emigration of Rwandans abroad, as one reason they agreed to the partnership with London.