‘Forced’ move: Rwandans grapple with own fears over UK asylum seeker plan | Refugees

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‘Forced’ move: Rwandans grapple with own fears over UK asylum seeker plan | Refugees

Kigali, Rwanda – Lush hills draped in verdure belie the controversies surrounding two locations in Kigali that may soon host hundreds of people who had no plans of ever living in Rwanda.

In northern Kigali, Hope Hostel sits on a hill overlooking the capital.

Across town in the southwest sits the Bwiza Riverside Estate, where manicured greenspaces, fences and small plots of land paint a picture of a quaint neighbourhood – one that, despite its suburban charm, also feels sterile and artificial.

Rwanda’s government has earmarked the two sites to host asylum seekers expected to be sent from the United Kingdom as part of a 220-million-pound ($272m) deal to relocate refugees landing on British shores to the East African country.

After months of wrangling and concerns over the human rights implications of the deal, the UK’s parliament passed the bill late on Monday.

It is expected to become law soon despite a cascade of issues regarding the plan’s feasibility, cost and legality and continued criticism from refugee rights activists.

Hope Hostel, Rwanda
Hope Hostel is one of the proposed locations where asylum seekers from the UK would be housed in Rwanda [Andrei Popoviciu/Al Jazeera]

Known locations

The Hope Hostel neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kigali bustles with street sellers, moto taxis and imposing villas.

According to its managing director, Ismael Bakina, the hostel has 50 double rooms, which can host up to 100 guests.

Initially, the hostel had a different purpose. Until two years ago, it housed survivors of the 1994 genocide, which killed almost a million people, mostly minority ethnic Tutsis. But after former UK Home Secretary Priti Patel visited the premises on a tightly controlled tour in 2022, the survivors were evacuated without housing alternatives.

For now, the hostel sits empty, awaiting the political process in the UK to reach a conclusion. Bakina told Al Jazeera it is ready to receive asylum seekers as soon as the first flights take off.

In the surrounding neighbourhood, Rwandans were hesitant to speak to Al Jazeera about the deal. Rights groups have often criticised Rwanda for its repressive political environment and restrictions of freedoms of expression. Journalists, opposition figures and activists have also been jailed or disappeared after criticising the government. Residents who did share their views did so anonymously, and some offered a more neutral take.

One 35-year-old woman named Dativ told Al Jazeera the plan sounded like a great idea because money would come into Rwanda and asylum seekers would bring more employees into the service sector. Rwanda’s economy mainly relies on services, tourism and agriculture.

A 45-year-old man who works as a taxi driver in the same neighbourhood and who refused to give his name, said it could go both ways: Rwandans could have more work but the relocated asylum seekers could also be competing with locals for job opportunities.

Bwiza Riversite Estate
The Bwiza Riversite Estate was developed as an affordable housing complex to address Kigali’s housing shortage, but it has also been identified as a place where asylum seekers from the UK would be transferred despite its owner telling local media that most of the affordable units have been sold [Andrei Popoviciu/Al Jazeera]

A Rwandan government spokesperson said asylum seekers from the UK would receive training and be introduced to the job market.

But Rwandans face an employment crisis with 15 percent of the labour force unemployed in 2023, according to the World Bank, and the youth unemployment rate was even higher at more than 20 percent.

These worries are shared on the condition of anonymity by some citizens. The asylum seekers “went to the UK to look for a better life, not to get tickets to come here”, one Kigali resident, a middle-aged man in a suit, told Al Jazeera.

“Will the government give them jobs or something to do here? They didn’t go [to the UK] for fun, so do you think when they come they will have the same life here they would have had there?”

Unemployment and housing crisis

The UK has provided Rwanda with an initial 220 million pounds ($272m) to take in asylum seekers for five years and has committed 370 million pounds ($456m) over the next five years, regardless of how many people are sent to Rwanda. But when the law passes, each asylum seeker would cost UK taxpayers about 1.8 million pounds ($2.2m), according to the UK auditor.

“We won’t be able to give them jobs. They’ll have money from the UK, but after that finishes, what happens?” Frank Habinenza, head of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda and the only opposition politician elected to parliament, told Al Jazeera.

“We are a small economy with high unemployment and few jobs,” added the aspiring candidate in July’s presidential election.

Kigali has more than 1.2 million inhabitants and its population is increasing while Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in sub-Saharan Africa.

More than half the country’s estimated 13 million people live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Kigali, Rwanda
Motorists drive past the Parliament buildings in Kigali, Rwanda [File: Jean Bizimana/Reuters]

As Kigali’s population expands, housing demand is also escalating, and the government’s decision to repurpose spaces for asylum seekers has ignited a maelstrom of opinions behind closed doors.

Thousands of people were left homeless after the government demolished informal housing in Kigali in 2019, offering only about $100 per person for temporary relocation to those who owned the property they were occupying at the time of the demolition.

Kigali’s administration estimates that 60 percent of the population live in informal settlements that are subject to natural risks induced by climate change while only 9 percent of Rwandans can afford the cheapest houses on the market. The average monthly income per household is about $100.

The shortage of affordable housing is set to double by 2050 as the city’s population increases and the government fails to achieve its housing development goals.

‘PR move’

In southern Kigali, the Bwiza Riverside Estate looks deserted. It was advertised during a carefully managed visit by the former UK Home Secretary Suella Bravemen as the place where asylum seekers will be housed.

The development was built with the help of the government in Kigali to provide affordable housing to Rwandans. It offers different price ranges and sizes, and the homes selling for under $30,000 can be bought only through a government programme that helps citizens buy affordable housing with loans from Rwanda’s development bank. For houses above that price, the client deals directly with ADHI, the developer of the housing complex.

The managing director of ADHI told local media in February that it had sold almost 70 percent of the affordable homes, which were supposed to house asylum seekers from the UK. A government spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the figure “is simply not true” because it has been involved in the development of the complex in partnership with ADHI from the beginning. The developer has not replied to repeated requests for comment.

“The Rwandan government wanted to show Suella Braveman they had enough houses for refugees, so they showed the Bwiza estate,” said Victoire Ingabire, an opposition politician formerly imprisoned and barred from politics due to her strong criticism of the government.

“It was a PR move because they didn’t know if the deal would happen, so they just wanted to show them something, and that was what they had at the time.”

Suella Braverman
Former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman visited Kigali in March 2023 to discuss the proposed asylum seekers deal [File: Reuters]

A government spokesperson told Al Jazeera that Rwanda has negotiated agreements with other facilities and will sign leases when flights are confirmed, but declined to provide details.

In total, Hope Hostel and Bwiza Riverside Estate could house an estimated 500 people. In 2023, almost 30,000 people arrived in the UK on small boats. It would cost 5 billion pounds ($6.2bn) to send the same number of asylum seekers in the first five years to Rwanda, according to leaked Home Office documents.

“We have been clear the scheme is uncapped, and we remain focused on getting flights off the ground as soon as possible,” a Home Office spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

Fears of rights violations

Ingabire said that while the UK money could be beneficial for the country, Rwandans need to “realise we’re talking about human beings here”.

The deal has been widely seen as illegal and immoral for violating the 1951 UN Refugee Convention protecting the right to asylum as well as European and UK laws.

“Human rights are also a problem because they didn’t choose to come here. They chose to go to the UK, and the UN obliges countries to accept refugees,” Hubinenza said.

“Rwanda welcomes refugees but only if they want to be here, not if they’re forced to come here. That is why the deal is illegal, and it’s against the dignity of the refugees and our people,” he added.

The UK government has repeatedly said Rwanda is a safe country with a strong history of providing protection, safety and sanctuary to refugees despite the UK Supreme Court decision saying the opposite.

Rwanda is home to more than 135,000 refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries in the region, but they are supported by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and not the Rwandan government.

Al Jazeera visited the Nkamira refugee camp in western Rwanda, which opened last year and where almost 7,000 Congolese refugees live. They receive one meal a day – corn mixed with beans – and there is no school for the children, no mats or sanitary products, and few resources to treat serious medical issues.

“We already have some cases of malnutrition. We have pregnant women who have special nutritional needs, and we don’t have funds to transfer people with serious illnesses to hospitals,” said David Rwanyonga, the director of the Nkamira camp.

At the Gashora transit camp, about an hour southeast of Kigali, Eritrean, Sudanese and Somali refugees await decisions on their asylum applications for European and North American countries. Although the conditions are better than at Nkamira with a school and sports facilities, asylum seekers have complained in the past of feeling like they are stuck in limbo.

Gashora was set up as a European Union-funded scheme to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda from Libya, where reports of human rights violations have been piling up for years. It was seen as an inspiration for the UK-Rwanda deal – a way to outsource asylum processes to third countries.

Rwanda’s existing refugees do not receive the same treatment as those coming from the UK would.

A UK Home Office spokesperson said: “Those relocated to Rwanda will not be living in refugee camps. … They will initially be accommodated in reception centres before moving into longer-term accommodation.”

Rwanda had a similar deal with Israel in 2015, which saw 4,000 asylum seekers sent to the East African country, but they all left and the deal was cancelled in 2018. Some of those asylum seekers were driven in groups to the Ugandan border with no work or documentation, leading many to take the central Mediterranean route to Europe.

“People will come here, and after a few months, they will go back to the UK,” said Ingabire, comparing the latest deal with the Israeli one. She said the Rwandan government knows that but is still going ahead with the proposal due to its financial incentive.

After the UK’s Rwanda deal gets final approval this week, the first deportations will happen at the start of July, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

“I don’t have any kind words about this deal,” Habinenza said. “There’s a fear of division in the country, and we don’t want any politics on ethnic, cultural or religious divisions, so we need to be careful of the impact of our policies on those divisions.”