True cost of UK-Rwanda ‘cash for people’ deal

Naledi Ramontja is a research assistant at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. Picture: Supplied

Naledi Ramontja is a research assistant at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. Picture: Supplied

Published May 14, 2024



Over the past years, the UK government has been exploring ways to deport asylum-seekers to other countries, particularly African countries, as part of its efforts to deter illegal migration.

In its latest move, the government has passed the Rwanda Bill and successfully negotiated a deal with Rwanda to facilitate the deportation of asylum-seekers.

The measure received support in the British Parliament, aligning with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s agenda of “stopping the boats”. The scale of the plan is significant, with about 2 000 of 52 000 individuals slated for deportation within the next 10 to 12 weeks.

Under the terms of the agreement, asylum-seekers, young and old, who arrived in the UK through unauthorised routes may find themselves whisked away 6 400km to Rwanda, supposedly for good. Even Lone children face the jeopardy of deportation as they are being classified as young adults.

While some view this as consistent with Rwanda’s tradition of hospitality, the agreement has sparked criticism from human rights activists, politicians and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Concerns revolve around human rights violations and the lack of adequate safeguards and standards within the arrangement. Civil society groups and opposition political parties within Rwanda also spoke out against the deal.

More so, Rwanda has its refugees in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, and the country has a history of conflict and human rights abuses. The questions linger about its capacity to absorb an influx of vulnerable migrants, given its strained resources and political tension.

There are more concerns regarding the lack of transparency surrounding the deal. Neither government has provided details on how the partnership would work, leaving many to speculate on its implications for migrants and Rwandan citizens.

Despite all concerns and criticisms, the Rwandan government has pledged to accept the migrants in exchange for £120 million ($150m) in the so-called “development deal” from the UK.

Both governments agree that the plan offers a fresh start for migrants, with promises of support including training, accommodation and health care for up to five years. This is not the first time such a migration agreement is being proposed in Africa.

Previously, Israel introduced a similarly contentious deportation plan to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014 and 2017. In January, reports suggest that Israel has been in discussions with Congo about potential “voluntary migration plans” for Palestinians from Gaza. Furthermore, unconfirmed reports claim that Denmark is also engaged in negotiations with Rwanda for a similar deal.

Botswana recently became the latest country to receive and reject a proposal to accept asylum-seekers from the UK. Foreign Minister Lemogang Kwape revealed the development in a recent interview with Newzroom Afrika. The instances highlight a growing trend of countries exploring migration agreements, often under controversial circumstances.

For Africa, there are significant consequences to bear. The deportation of asylum-seekers to Rwanda sets a concerning precedent that can exacerbate migration challenges and socio-economic disparities across the continent. Moreover, the deportation of asylum-seekers to Rwanda may create a domino effect, leading to secondary migration flows to neighbouring African countries such as Kenya.

Asylum-seekers who are unable to integrate or find stability in Rwanda may seek alternative destinations where they perceive better opportunities or support networks. This could result in increased irregular migration, heightened competition for resources and potential social tension in neighbouring countries.

The Rwanda Bill truly sets a concerning example for future migration agreements. It shows how richer countries can evade their international responsibilities to host refugees by transferring them to other countries in exchange for development deals or financial support.

Equally significant is the agency of African countries to refuse such deals, as demonstrated by Botswana’s recent decision. African nations have every right to assert their sovereignty and determine their own migration policies in alignment with their national interests and capacities. Refusing to accept deals that disproportionately burden their resources and social structures is an exercise of this sovereign right.

As the deportation process unfolds, a pervasive sense of uncertainty hangs over those directly impacted by the imminent transfers. Recent events have served only to exacerbate tension, as videos and reports surface of asylum-seekers being apprehended and detained in preparation for their relocation to Rwanda.

The arrests highlight the troubling reality of abuse and disregard for the rights and well-being of migrants within the immigration system. It reflects systemic failures to uphold principles of dignity, fairness and justice, as individuals are subjected to arbitrary detention and coercion in the name of migration enforcement.

In light of the developments, we must confront and challenge the systemic injustices inherent in immigration enforcement. We must demand accountability for those responsible for the mistreatment of asylum-seekers and advocate for policies that uphold the rights and dignity of all migrants, regardless of their status.

Only through collective action and solidarity can we hope to create a more just and humane migration system that respects the inherent worth and dignity of every individual because, at the end of the day, the true cost of this deal is not measured in financial gain but in human suffering and the abuse of fundamental rights because of forced migration.

As the international community continues to watch, the plight of the UK asylum-seekers hangs in the balance, caught between the politics of migration and the pursuit of a better life.

Naledi Ramontja is a research assistant at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

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