RWanda, Priti Patel’s planned destination for the processing of migrants arriving in the UK, is a largely rural East African country whose authoritarian president, Paul Kagame, has been accused of seeking assassinate opponents.
The mountainous and landlocked country of 12 million, which witnessed an appalling genocide in 1994 in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, has been a recipient of generous development aid in the decades since.
Kagame has been feted by supporters in the west for his role in ending the genocide and for reducing poverty, though some critics have questioned the statistics.
But his leadership has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, especially over accusations that he orchestrated the kidnapping and murdering of his political opponents in order to eliminate challengers to his rule – accusations he denies.
One of Kagame’s most prominent alleged victims was his former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, who was strangled in a hotel room while living in exile in South Africa in 2014.
Rwanda’s former army chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa – who also went into exile in South Africa – has survived two assassination attempts blamed on Kagame.
More recently Rwanda was accused of kidnapping the opposition figure Paul Rusesabagina from Dubai and subjecting him to what critics said was a “show trial”. Rusesabagina, whose lifesaving actions during the genocide were depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in September after being convicted of terrorism offenses by a court in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. The US state department said it was “concerned” over the “fairness of the verdict.” In July last year the Guardian reported that Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, had been spied on using Pegasus malware developed by the Israeli company NSO.
The British police have warned Kagame critics living in the UK that their lives may be in danger.
Despite well-documented concerns about Rwanda’s human rights record, Kagame has long enjoyed vigorous support from UK politicians – from the Conservative and Labor parties.
Rwanda’s record in hosting refugees from DRC has in the past come under scrutiny. In 2018, Rwandan police killed 12 refugees after a demonstration outside the offices of the UN high commissioner for refugees in Karongi district.
Rwanda’s previous involvement in receiving African sports from Israel raises serious concerns over whether – even with the UK’s reported £20m funding – it has the resources or even willingness to host deportations.
Of about 4,000 people estimated to have been deported by Israel to Rwanda and Uganda under a “voluntary departure” scheme between 2014 and 2017, almost all are thought to have left the country almost immediatelywith many attempting to return to Europe via people-smuggling routes.
In addition, at least one sport still in Rwanda, tracked down by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper in 2018, described being destitute and living on the streets of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Clouded in secrecy, and with Rwanda officially denying its involvement, details of the arrangement with Israel and the fate of some of those deported have been described in several reports, some of which included testimony from those who said they had been sent to Rwanda.
Critics at the time, including the rights group Amnesty International, also pointed out that Israel had a far smaller number of refugees than Rwanda, and was a much wealthier country. Amnesty accused Israel of “foisting its responsibility on countries that have only a fraction of the wealth and resources”.
A report by the International Refugee Rights Initiative interviewed a number of individuals who said they had been deported from Israel to Rwanda.
Testimonies collected by IRRI suggested “that the majority, if not all, are being smuggled out of the country by land to Kampala [in Uganda] within days of arriving in Kigali.
“They are not given an opportunity to apply for asylum, and even if they wish to stay in Rwanda, their refugee claims cannot be assessed as the national refugee status determination committee has not yet been established.”
Among the very few deported from Israel voluntarily who did opt to stay was a 28-year-old Eritrean man named Goitom, who spoke to Haaretz newspaper in Kigali in 2018. He had not been allowed to work and was living on the streets.
“Things are so bad. I am living very badly. I have no home, there is no work,” he told the paper. “Before, there were a few people who helped me. The United Nations also helped – they gave me money for lodging and food. But they stopped.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism