“You are not allowed to talk to any refugees, or take any photos of refugees,” the Mahama camp manager announced from behind his desk in his air-conditioned office. He had waited until this moment, three hours after setting off in the same car from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, to proclaim this. When I had tried on the journey to ask questions about the camp, he told me brusquely that he would not be discussing anything until we got to his office from him.
ace to reporter on the global development desk at the Guardian in London, I had applied for, and been granted, permission to visit Rwanda, and the Mahama camp, to cover the impact of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension and diabetes in refugee camps.
It wasn’t a particularly sensitive subject, I thought, yet I was being denied access to the people I was trying to write about. I asked why and was told a confusing mix of reasons, including that health is a private matter; refugees wouldn’t know what an NCD was, and that anyone I spoke to might think they would be granted resettlement in another country and “cause problems” for camp management.
I was also told I could be arrested for entering a medical appointment or someone’s home.
The UK and Rwanda have announced a deal in which the UK will send hundreds of people claiming asylum to the East African country, where their cases will be processed. If they are granted asylum, they will be encouraged to remain in Rwanda for at least five years.
Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have promised to push ahead with the plan, which stalled in June after an intervention by the European court of human rights. Government officials in Rwanda and the UK have said the country is safe and that its record of human rights breaches is a thing of the past. So why was I being stopped from doing my job?
“This is Rwanda,” said Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, president of the opposition Dalfa Umurinzi party, after hearing my experience. “The government doesn’t accept any criticism, or that you say something contrary to its vision. The government wants to control all information. They don’t want you to talk to people that they don’t control.”
It wasn’t just government employees impeding my access, however. After I left the camp manager’s office, a representative from the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, joined me at one of the health centers. During my interview with the clinical lead, he emphasized how Rwanda and camp management were doing a good job in terms of public health, and contradicted and downplayed what other health experts had told me about NCDs affecting refugees at younger ages.
Faith Kasina, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, said the representative’s comments related to a lack of data and research on NCDs among refugees and the host community in Rwanda.
When I arrived at the camp the next morning, thinking I was going to shadow community health workers doing their job and speak to people receiving treatment for NCDs as agreed with the clinical lead the day before, I read an email from the UNHCR representative. He wrote that he had sought permission from the camp manage for me to speak to refugees. The answer was no.
Later, in an interview, the camp manager veered between denying NCDs were an issue and boasting that “Mahama camp is the best camp in Rwanda, with 100% of facilities”.
The UNHCR representative, meanwhile, asked the purpose of my line of questioning, and stepped in to reword some of the camp manager’s answers.
The UNHCR is an influential international organization that gets its funding from states including the UK. Jeff Crisp, a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center and former head of policy development and evaluation at the UNHCR, explained that in places where the government is a “relatively authoritarian one, UNHCR tends not to push the boundaries too much and accepts limitations imposed on it by authorities”.
In terms of journalistic inquiries, there are “no hard and fast written rules”. He added: “In some countries, UNHCR might be relatively amenable to facilitating trips to see people and places. In others, it might be much more reluctant and, as is probably the case in Rwanda, actively block access to journalists.”
Kasina said: “UNHCR always facilitates media trips, as we believe the work of journalists plays a critical role in highlighting issues affecting refugees and helping raise awareness.” However, camps in Rwanda are managed by the Rwandan authorities, and interviews with refugees have to be authorized by the camp manager, who works with the ministry in charge of emergency management, she explained.
The UNHCR has released a public statement criticizing the UK’s deal with Rwanda, expressing “strong opposition and concerns”. It has also “gone out of its way to praise Rwanda”, says Crisp, allowing refugees to be evacuated from Libya, and being positive about Rwandan refugee policy in general.
I was left feeling angry and uneasy, and wondering what lay behind this image of Rwanda that the authorities, and the UN to some extent, was trying to project.
My experience of being micromanaged and blocked from doing my job is largely irrelevant. What it shows, however, is a glimpse of something more sinister, according to Lucy Hovil, senior research associate at the Refugee Law Initiative, University of London.
“Just demonizing Rwanda as a country isn’t helpful in this whole discussion, and yet there are people who have been kept in camps for years and years, and that’s a terrible situation,” she said.
“Compared to what the UK is doing, Rwanda has got fairly progressive refugee policies in that it has generally opened its borders to refugees. If you look at the number of people it’s hosting right now, it’s relatively significant.
“But there’s a sinister undercurrent to all of that: if you do in any way talk out against the government, your situation changes immediately.”
In 2018, when refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo staged a protest over not having enough to eat, Rwandan authorities fired on them, killing 12 and arresting more than 60 others. other people’s lives have been destroyed for speaking out about injustice in Rwanda.
Umuhoza, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of spreading genocidal ideology and false information, says members of her party have been disappeared, imprisoned and assassinated. “We have no room to express ourselves. I do it but the majority of Rwandans cannot. They are afraid to express their mind [in case they are] accused of genocidal ideology or being an enemy of the state.”
Meanwhile, as freedom of speech remains elusive, the Rwandan government’s PR campaign has ramped up in light of the increased attention following the announcement of the UK-Rwanda deal.
When I asked the Home Office how the British government could ensure free and fair reporting of a flagship policy when a UK journalist was denied basic access to refugees in Rwanda, they were “unable” to comment.
Instead my request was sent to Harry Burns, a political strategist, who ran the British Labor party’s election campaign in 2017, and who is now the managing director of the PR firm Chelgate Consulting. He has been hired by the Rwandan government to facilitate requests from international media.
The response from the government of Rwanda was: “It would be wholly wrong to suggest [Ms Johnson] was prevented from doing her job when, in fact, the only thing she was restricted from doing was encroaching upon the personal privacy of refugees who didn’t wish to speak to the media about their medical conditions. This shows the Rwandan government living up to our responsibilities to those seeking safety in our country.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism