Rwanda’s Migration Deal With the U.K. Is a PR Move

Rwanda’s Migration Deal With the U.K. Is a PR Move
Rwandan President Paul Kagame speaks in Nairobi, Kenya, Feb. 11, 2020 (AP photo by John Muchucha).
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. For its part, the U.K. government, as well as many members of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, have pointed to the remarkable economic strides Rwanda has made in the years since the 1994 genocide, arguing that its robust economy and record of welcoming and resettling migrants makes it an ideal partner for the scheme. But those claims don’t stand up to closer examination, for a few reasons. For one, similar offshore agreements that Israel struck with Rwanda and Uganda were abandoned after thousands of people—mostly Africans—seeking asylum in Israel were sent to the two East African countries with the promise of resettlement, only to be smuggled back out of the country by human traffickers and onward to Europe, where many migrants are subject to modern slavery. As for Rwanda’s economy, frequently said to be one of the fastest-growing in the world, there is much less there than meets the eye. For all the progress Rwanda has made since 1994 and particularly under Kagame, it remains an impoverished, low-income country that still depends considerably on Western development donors to fund its annual budgets.

Rwanda’s human rights abuses are well-established facts. But they are inconvenient truths when it comes to the widespread international perception of Kagame as a modern African leader.

Meanwhile, Rwanda’s supposed hospitality and welcoming environment for asylum-seekers is belied by reports of widespread arbitrary detention, torture and maltreatment of refugees. And that is to say nothing of Rwanda’s dreadful human rights record under Kagame, which even the U.K. government noted was characterized by “continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom” as recently as January 2021. That same U.K. government report recommended that steps be taken to investigate allegations of torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and deaths in custody. Many of Kagame’s critics have been detained, tortured, forced into exile or killed, including a number of them abroad, fueling suspicions that Kagame’s regime pursues its perceived enemies well beyond Rwanda’s borders. These abuses are well-established facts in the human rights community and among Kagame’s critics, including Rwandan dissidents abroad. But they are inconvenient truths when it comes to the widespread international perception of Kagame as a modern African leader, one who has rebuilt his country from total ruin and turned it into an “African success story” in his more than two decades in power. As I argued in a Twitter thread, Rwanda under Kagame punches well above its weight in terms of its international image, and it is not by coincidence. For many years, it has retained the services of international public relations shops, consulting firms, lobbyists and journalists to build up that image, particularly in Western capitals. And on a pound-for-pound basis, the country has arguably earned a better return on that investment than other African countries like Ghana, given its recent history, smaller size and relatively smaller visibility. Kagame and other Rwandan government officials are regular fixtures at events like the World Economic Forum, he frequently gives interviews to elite Western media organizations and engages with academic institutions, where he is generally received by a broadly sympathetic audience. A succession of Western political leaders, ranging from French President Emmanuel Macron and former U.S. President Bill Clinton to former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, have praised Kagame as a model African leader, among other plaudits. Kagame also tends to be supportive of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa, and he is willing to commit military and other resources in parts of the continent where the U.S. and other Western governments are hesitant to venture. As a result, Washington is willing to look the other way on his human rights abuses and other infractions, earning him the moniker of “America’s darling tyrant.” Many observers argue that the Western goodwill Kagame benefits from is due to a hangover of guilt and “shame” stemming from the West’s inaction during the 1994 genocide. There is some truth to the claim, but it is equally the case that many of Rwanda’s Western partners are invested in the idea of an “excellent” African leader presiding over a fast-growing economy with considerably impressive indicators across many social categories. The partnership with the U.K. also underscores the steps Kagame has taken to integrate Rwanda into the Anglophone world and distance it from French and Belgian influence, with much of the tension with the former countries undoubtedly rooted in the country’s colonial past and the 1994 genocide. In 2008, Rwanda changed the official language of instruction in its national education system from French to English, and the country joined the Commonwealth of Nations the following year, in part due to Kagame’s desire for closer integration with English-speaking neighbors that are former British colonies, including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Rwanda is set to host the 2022 Commonwealth summit, a gathering of government leaders from mostly former British colonies. And despite what appears to be a thawing in relations between Kigali and Paris, the pivot toward the English-speaking world appears to be a permanent part of Kagame’s plan to build broader international ties beyond France and the Francophone countries of Africa. The Rwanda-UK deal is expected to face legal challenges. But whatever ultimately happens in the courtroom, the Rwanda-U.K. partnership is yet another step in that direction, and the deal’s erosion of international humanitarian norms and Kagame’s record of human rights abuses do not appear to be an obstacle.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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