Rwanda is no refuge for UK asylum seekers

Before opening its doors to those seeking refuge in the UK, Rwanda should tackle the issues that lead Rwandans to flee and refuse to return home.

Suella Braverman in Rwanda posing with Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) receives the visiting British Home Secretary Suella Braverman (L) in Kigali, Rwanda on March 19, 2023 [Presidency of Rwanda/Anadolu Agency]

As we mark another World Refugee Day, the government of the United Kingdom appears determined to overcome all remaining legal hurdles in order to start sending people seeking asylum there to my home country, Rwanda.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has recently claimed that “Rwanda has a track record of successfully resettling and integrating people who are refugees or asylum seekers”, insisting that my country can comfortably accommodate all those seeking refuge in the UK.

However, Rwanda itself creates thousands of refugees every year and its government is yet to guarantee a safe environment for Rwandan refugees settled across the world to return home.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in 2021 alone some 12,838 Rwandans fled the country and applied for asylum elsewhere. And this tragic trend did not start recently. Rwandans have been forced to seek safety abroad, in significant numbers, since before the country’s independence in 1962.

The Rwandan Revolution of 1959, for example, pushed some 300,000 Rwandans into exile in neighbouring Tanzania, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaïre) and Uganda. Just over a decade later, in 1973, a coup d’état caused an additional 40,000 to flee the country.

The 1973 coup, in which Juvénal Habyarimana assumed power, transformed Rwanda into a single-party state. For over two decades, one party remained in power with its chairman the sole presidential candidate, consecutively winning elections with close to 100 percent of the vote.

During this era, Rwanda was commended for its economic achievements, good relations with regional states and overall stability, but it was also widely criticised for its human rights violations and lack of democracy. During these two decades, the Habyarimana administration did very little to bring back home the thousands of refugees who left in 1959 and 1973.

In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an armed group made up of the descendants of those who fled the country in the wake of the 1959 revolution, launched an attack on Rwanda. The country finally returned to a multi-party system in 1991 and in 1993, Habyarimana’s government reached a fragile peace agreement with the RPF. By then the number of Rwandan refugees and Rwandans of undetermined status living in neighbouring countries had reached at least 600,000.

Any emerging hopes for the resolution of the refugee problem, however, were crushed in 1994 when Habyarimana was assassinated. The resulting civil war culminated in the genocide against the Tutsi and pushed about 1.75 million additional Rwandans to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

The RPF, led by Paul Kagame, eventually defeated the government forces and assumed control of Rwanda. After this victory, approximately 700,000 Rwandan refugees (the majority being those who had fled Rwanda during the 1959 revolution including their children born in exile) returned to Rwanda.

Unlike Rwanda’s previous governments, the RPF administration led by Kagame was determined to bring all Rwandan refugees home, using soft or hard power – at any cost.

In 1996, as part of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) coalition, the Rwandan army invaded the DRC and fought the Rwandan forces that had sought refuge there after the 1994 genocide. During that conflict, the camps that were hosting Rwandan refugees were directly attacked and the UN reported that thousands of Rwandan refugees and Congolese nationals were killed in the process. Close to 750,000 Rwandan refugees returned to Rwanda as a result of this conflict. Some of the survivors still live in DRC while others have managed to flee to countries in Southern Africa and outside the African continent. They all carry with them horrific memories of state violence.

Later, the Rwandan government sought to bring refugees home by signing voluntary repatriation agreements with the governments of African states hosting Rwandan refugees such as ZambiaUgandaTanzania, the Republic of CongoMalawiNamibiaZimbabwe and Mozambique

In 2009, to encourage repatriations, the Rwandan government convinced the UN to end the refugee status of Rwandans who had left the country before November 1998. This decision came into effect in June 2013, providing further incentives for Rwandans abroad to return. Initiatives such as “Come and See” and “Rwanda Day” in various countries were also launched in a bid to get Rwandan refugees to return to their home country.

However, despite all these efforts, the number of Rwandan refugees in Africa and beyond remains worryingly high. According to the most recent figures by the UNHCR, there are still more than 200,000 Rwandan refugees in the DRC, close to 24,000 in Uganda, 10,000 in the Republic of Congo, close to 6,000 in Zambia, more than 4,000 in Mozambique, close to 4,000 in Malawi and more than 2,000 in Kenya.

There are compelling reasons why so many Rwandan refugees do not want to – or do not feel safe enough to – return to their motherland.

The devastating memories of the civil war, the genocide against Tutsi and the killing of refugees in the DRC by government forces are still fresh in the minds of many Rwandan refugees and in the absence of a comprehensive reconciliation policy, they have little reason to want to return to Rwanda.

Moreover, persistent poverty and deep inequality, coupled with widespread political persecution and oppression, are not only discouraging the return of existing refugees but are pushing more Rwandans to leave the country and seek safety elsewhere.

Rwanda’s human rights record is not hidden from the world. The Freedom House has been rating Rwanda as “not free” in its authoritative Freedom in the World reports for years. Respected international NGOs have been criticising the state of civil liberties and political rights in the country on a regular basis. Persecution of Rwandan opposition figures and perceived dissidents, in and outside Rwanda, have made international headlines many times before.

I know personally how anyone who dares to (or is perceived to) challenge the government’s policies and narratives is persecuted and labelled an “enemy of the state intending to destabilise Rwanda”.

I voluntarily returned to Rwanda from exile in the Netherlands in 2010.

I was hoping to register my political party and run for presidential elections later that year. However, I was dragged into politically motivated judicial proceedings which resulted in a 15-year prison sentence. Even when the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights cleared my name in an appeal, the government of Rwanda refused to recognise the court’s order.

After spending eight years in prison, five of which were in solitary confinement, I was eventually released by presidential grace in 2018. However, I still cannot register my political party and thus exercise my most basic political rights in my home country.

My story, and those of others who have gone and continue to go through similar experiences or worse for challenging the government, are undoubtedly among the reasons why so many Rwandan refugees do not want to return to their country.

In fact, refugees are a challenge to Rwanda’s ruling party in Africa and beyond.

For example, some Rwandan refugees formed an armed group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), in eastern DRC at the turn of the century and are still actively trying to seize control of Rwanda. Rwanda’s armed forces launched military operations against the group on Congolese soil on numerous occasions. Despite countless successful operations against the group, and the arrests of several of the group’s prominent leaders, however, the Rwandan government still views FDLR as a serious threat to Rwanda’s security.

In addition to the armed groups formed by Rwandan refugees operating in the eastern DRC, there are political groups set up by Rwandan refugees that oppose Rwanda’s current ruling party and agitate for more political freedom in the country. Members of these groups work to increase political inclusion in Rwanda and pressure the government to allow their safe return so that they can exercise their political rights without any restrictions in their home country. So far, despite its claims that it wants all Rwandans to return home, Rwanda’s ruling party offered no political guarantees to these potential returnees. Instead, the Rwandan government claims these political groups are linked to armed dissident groups in eastern DRC. It has also accused Burundi and Uganda of supporting these groups, which led to increased tensions in an already volatile region.

Since May, the government of Rwanda has been engaged in a dialogue with the government of the DRC and the UNHCR to pave the way for the voluntary repatriation of Congolese and Rwandan refugees hosted in the two countries. The aim of the dialogue is to ensure all refugees return to their countries voluntarily and with safety and dignity.

While this effort is undoubtedly commendable, it is important to highlight that in the case of Rwanda, such UN or government-led attempts aimed at resolving the deep-rooted refugee issue never bore fruit in the past.

If Rwanda is to welcome all its citizens back inside its borders, end the violence in Rwanda and the DRC, and truly emerge as a stable, democratic country that can welcome asylum seekers from around the world, the government needs to tackle the core issues that lead Rwandans to flee and refuse to return home.

First and foremost, it needs to take the necessary steps to divorce Rwandan politics from violence, removing all social and political incentives for dissident groups to take up arms or do politics in exile.

To achieve this, the Rwandan government must enter into an inclusive and open dialogue with, among others, Rwandan refugees from across the board. It should use this dialogue to draft governance reforms that would guarantee political inclusion, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Rwanda, and that can be supported by all stakeholders. Rwanda’s development partners, such as the UK, should encourage and support such a process.

It does not make sense for Rwanda to welcome asylum seekers who are to be sent from the UK, while it has not addressed its own internal issues that are causing it to produce refugees of its own.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.