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I visited Rwanda. This is what I learned about UK immigration policy

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 19th Apr 2024

Like most of my SNP colleagues, I believe that our political representatives should be accountable to the electorate and so I do not approve of the way in which the House of Lords is selected rather than elected. However, I have been surprised and impressed by the dogged insistence of their lordships on their amendments to the Rwanda bill this week.  The fight is not over yet and while cynics say the PM is happy to let the ping pong between Commons and Lords go on for a little longer while he gets his ducks in a row for the first deportation flight to Rwanda, I say credit where credit is due.

The lords started out with nearly a dozen amendments now there are only two.  But they are important because one underlines the moral bankruptcy of this policy and the other its total disregard for evidence based policy making. The first amendment is designed to prevent Afghan veterans who assisted British armed forces in Afghanistan from being deported. One might think this would be a moral imperative but when I put that to the PM at the Liaison Committee before Easter, he lost his cool completely. A sign of a guilty conscience I reckon.

The second drafted by Lord Hope, formerly Scotland’s most senior judge and the Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, is designed to put a halt to the scheme should new evidence suggesting Rwanda is not a safe country comes to light. Pretty tame and reasonable stuff particularly when there is already plenty of evidence to suggest that Rwanda is not currently a safe country for those seek asylum in the UK.

That’s what the United Kingdom Supreme Court found at the end of last year. Their decision was based on evidence about the general human rights situation in Rwanda, the adequacy of Rwanda’s current asylum system and Rwanda’s failure to meet their obligations in a similar agreement regarding asylum seekers with Israel in 2013. 

The UK government’s response was to enter into a new agreement with the Rwandan Government providing for a new approach to the processing of asylum seekers in Rwanda which they say addresses the issue of safety. That agreement provides for a new asylum law in Rwanda, major reforms in their court system and the training of immigration officials, lawyers and judges in the new law and systems.  And now the UK Government are desperately trying to pass the bill which declares that Rwanda is a safe country for asylum seekers and trying to put that issue beyond judicial scrutiny.

The trouble is that none of the new measures to which Rwanda and the UK have agreed are properly in place yet. Accordingly, the UK Government’s insistence that Rwanda is now a safe country for asylum seekers is a legal fiction.  The relevant legislation is still going through the Rwandan parliament, the legal reforms and the new systems are yet to be put in place and although training has commenced it is still in its infancy.

Since I last wrote about the Rwanda policy, I have visited the country for myself in my role as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). The committee will report on our visit in due course, so these are just my personal reflections and conclusions on the visit. The Supreme Court found that the Rwandans were acting in good faith but that “intentions and aspirations do not necessarily correspond to reality”. Having met with Rwandan government ministers and officials, health care workers, lawyers, those who will deliver the legal training and NGOs, I agree. During the visit, we viewed accommodation being prepared for arrivals from the UK. The hostel we were shown was of a considerably higher quality than that which the UK Government provides for asylum seekers – a long way from the Bibby Stockholm barge. Whether the rest of the accommodation being prepared is of similar high quality I cannot say. 

Owing to their recent history 80% of Rwandans have themselves been refugees. On their borders they accommodate well over one hundred thousand refugees and displaced persons from neighbouring countries, particular Burundi, and the Congo. The Rwandans I met were at pains to emphasise that they see refugees as their friends, their brothers, and sisters.  I was struck by how their attitude contrasts with the UK government’s hostility towards asylum seekers and their desire to off load their moral and legal responsibilities toward their asylum onto others. 

When the JCHR considered the UK Government’s original agreement with Rwanda and the Illegal Migration Bill, we expressed concern that the policy could be seen as outsourcing the UK's obligations under the Refugee Convention to another country. We also said that removing asylum seekers to a state where they face a real risk of serious human rights abuses, or of being sent on to a dangerous third country because of an inadequate asylum system, is inconsistent with the UK's human rights obligations.

Whilst those I met in Rwanda were keen to emphasise that their written constitution contains good human rights protections, few were able to point to any case-law showing people in Rwanda taking advantage of those protections.  In 2016 the Rwandan Government withdrew the right of individual petition to the African Court of Human Rights because they were unhappy with the way in which it handled claims brought by Rwandan dissidents. I could not help but see in this an echo of the UK Government’s attitude towards the European Court of Human Rights.

A 137-page Country Information Note on Human Rights in Rwanda prepared by the UK Government’s Home Office and updated in January this year collates sources including the US State Department and Human Rights Watch setting out serious shortcomings in the protection of human rights in Rwanda. These organisations and others like Amnesty International have collected evidence of unlawful or arbitrary killings, disappearances, and torture. It is extraordinary that the UK Government think this can just be ignored.

One area of particular concern for asylum seekers sent from the UK is the protection of the rights of same sex attracted and transgender people.  The UK Foreign Office travel advice for Rwanda warns “individuals can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities. There are no specific anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT individuals.” When I put this to government officials and others with whom we met I was reassured that the Rwandan constitution contains a general protection against discrimination, but no one was able to show me any evidence that any LGBT person has ever availed themselves of this protection. On LGBT rights I think Rwanda is where Britain was 50 years ago. Yes, unlike many other African countries, homosexuality is not criminalised but there are no statutory rights for same-sex attracted or trans people and no specific antidiscrimination laws.  According to NGOs we met on the ground LGBT people face stigmatisation and discrimination in what is quite a conservative society.

Rwanda has a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) with whom we met but it struck me as far too close to government.   Until recently its current chair led on the Migration and Economic Development Partnership in her capacity as the Head of International Justice and Judicial Co-operation in the Ministry of Justice.  It seems the NHRC never criticises the government in its annual reports, preferring to resolve issues “collaboratively”. This contrasts with our own domestic human rights commissions who are quite prepared to criticise government where necessary.

Many who come to the UK seeking asylum have left their own countries because they were under threat as dissidents or human rights defenders.  LGBT asylum seekers want to come to the UK because here they would enjoy some of the best rights protections in the world. Such asylum seekers are confident they would fare better in the UK than at home, the evidence does not suggest to me that they could have the same confidence in Rwanda.

Based on the evidence and information I gathered on my trip to Rwanda I remain of the view that it is still not a safe country for asylum seekers. As the United Nations High Commission for Refugees told me, systemic and structural change needs to happen and then it needs to cascade down through the system.  That will take time. A greater commitment to meaningful human rights protections is also required.   Viewed against these conclusions the Lords’ amendments are small beer. That they should be resisted by the UK Government so strenuously is disgraceful.