The U.K.-Rwanda Deal Is Another Blow to Refugee and Asylum Norms

The U.K.-Rwanda Deal Is Another Blow to Refugee and Asylum Norms
British Home Secretary Priti Patel shakes hands with Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta after signing what the two countries called an “economic development partnership” in Kigali, Rwanda, April 14, 2022 (AP Photo by Muhizi Olivier).
Rwanda has announced an agreement with the United Kingdom to take in some asylum-seekers for processing in the East African country. Having pledged to control the country’s borders during the successful “Brexit” campaign to leave the European Union, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday announced a crackdown on migrant crossings via routes across the English Channel, saying that migrants who do not meet strict asylum criteria will be flown more than 4,000 miles to Rwanda for processing and possible resettlement there. British Home Secretary Priti Patel traveled to Kigali, the capital, to sign the deal, which includes £120 million—approximately $160 million—in aid to Rwanda. Patel also called the plan a “joint new migration and economic development partnership,” saying that the U.K. is “making substantial investment in the economic development of Rwanda.” Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta welcomed the partnership, saying that it was about “ensuring that people are protected, respected, and empowered to further their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they choose.” The plan, part of a contentious new Nationality and Borders Bill, now goes to Parliament where Johnson’s Conservative Party holds a commanding majority. Almost immediately, the controversial scheme has been blasted by international organizations and human rights groups, among other critics, as being contrary to international obligations and humanitarian norms, and perhaps even international law. The U.K.-Rwanda migration partnership is one more example of policy initiatives by Global North countries to avoid their international obligations to take in refugees and asylum seekers, as Matthew Gibney wrote in a WPR article last year. The European Union’s “migration management” policies, involving payments made to governments in Africa and elsewhere, as well as the use of ethically and legally questionable methods to patrol EU borders, have been extensively detailed, drawing the moniker “Fortress Europe.” Australia’s offshore processing of refugees and asylum seekers, which many observers argue London is copying, is notorious for its human rights violations. After last year’s hurried departure from Afghanistan, the U.S.—even more extensively than was known at the time—secured deals with many countries to temporarily house at-risk Afghans who worked for the U.S. government. Similarly, Washington struck a 2019 agreement with Guatemala that essentially replicates the Australian outsourced asylum application processing system.

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The agreement between the U.K. and Rwanda also puts the spotlight on London’s spotty historical record when it comes to migration policy. In 2018, the country was forced to confront the “Windrush scandal,” involving Caribbean immigrants who moved to the U.K. after World War II on the invitation of the U.K. government as part of the postwar rebuilding effort. Until a new immigration law came into force in 1973, Commonwealth citizens and their children had the automatic right to live and work in the U.K. Many of the Windrush generation did so, without any need for additional documentation. But they and their children were subsequently forced to prove their citizenship status under tough new immigration rules billed as a “hostile environment” policy. Unable to provide the necessary documentation under the new law, they were detained, denied social services like medical care and housing, threatened with deportation and in some instances deported. Even though an investigation was conducted and a compensation scheme was established, many critics regard both as formulaic and insufficient—too little, too late to repair the damage already done. The agreement is also consistent with the carceral logic of Britain’s historical efforts to export its domestic prisoner population, including Britain’s historical legacy of penal colonies. That practice gained currency during the first wave of European colonization and peaked during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the British Empire—and other European powers—established penal colonies around the world and transported domestic convicts, political prisoners and prisoners of war to its overseas colonies. In recent years, the U.K. has also implemented prisoner-transfer agreements with African countries like Nigeria and Zimbabwe, whereby these foreign governments agreed to take back their nationals imprisoned in British jails in exchange for inducements that included pledges to build new prisons and financial payments, among other incentives. It's important to underscore that migrants and refugees are not convicted criminals. But in conflating the “illegal” entry of asylum-seekers with criminality—based on the logic of an exclusionary system that imposes restrictions on human movement along constructed lines of citizenship and nationality—the British government is condemning them to the same regime of capture and confinement as the one facing sentenced prisoners. As for Rwanda, its poor human rights record, including its treatment of migrants and refugees, gives little reason to believe that offshored asylum-seekers will be treated in a humane and dignified manner. The allusions by British officials to the East African country’s reported stability and economic track record are belied by historical and ongoing human rights violations in the country, to say nothing of war crimes accusations leveled against Rwandan military forces operating in neighboring countries. It is possible that the U.K.-Rwanda plan will eventually be withdrawn for legal or political reasons. But the fact that the U.K.—a founding member of the United Nations and a prominent leader of the so-called rules-based international order—has wholeheartedly embraced this plan speaks to the continued erosion of norms and obligations governing refugees, asylum and other humanitarian principles. Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire.

Civil Society Watch

Twenty-three activists in Angola have been charged in a court in Luanda, the country’s capital, after being detained for an unauthorized demonstration. According to a law enforcement spokesperson, the 23 were arrested for “disrespecting the requirements” of the law on the right of assembly and demonstration. The protesters appear to have been detained based on reports they planned to lead demonstrations against the company selected to manage the electoral process in Angola’s upcoming general elections, scheduled for August 2022.

Culture Watch

Sihle Ntuli, a South African poet and classicist, sat down with Kirsten Reneau to talk about “The Sun Turns on Us,” his new poem that was published this year in The Hellebore Press. Ntuli explained that the inspiration for the poem came from the unbearable heat of recent Durban summers and grew out of the subsequent conversations about global warming and religion with his brother and some friends that followed.

Top Reads From Around the Web

The Forgotten Movement to Reclaim Africa’s Stolen Art. Julian Lucas writes in The New Yorker about the ongoing movement calling for the restitution of African artifacts stolen by European countries during the colonization era, drawing on a new book detailing previous waves of the restitution movement, beginning in the 1960s. Why is the US fixated on China’s rise in Africa? In Quartz, Kang-Chun Cheng examines the increased nervousness in Washington about China’s deepening relations with African countries, tracing it to fears about the United States’ waning influence in Africa and an inability to compete pound-for-pound with Beijing’s footprint.

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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