A three-part investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team exposes the human rights concerns over the Rwanda scheme – including repression of journalists and the killing of a 13th Congolese refugee in 2018

A three-part investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team into the UK Government’s Economic and Migration Partnership with Rwanda raises concerns about the human rights and future safety of those migrant people facing deportation to east Africa.

The investigation comes as the PCS Union, Care4Calais and Detention Action have initiated a judicial review of the Government’s ‘Rwanda scheme’, which was introduced earlier this year by outgoing Home Secretary Priti Patel.

The Byline Intelligence Team has pored over Home Office documents, local Rwandan news reports, Freedom of Information requests and parliamentary research to build a full picture of the policy, its risks, and its impact on migrant people’s human rights. 

Iain Overton, who leads the team, attempted to report from Rwanda about human rights concerns in the country, however he was denied a journalist visa. This raised questions about transparency and scrutiny of the policy, and the ability of the press to hold both the UK and the Rwanda Governments to account. 

The investigation has uncovered:

  • A killing of a 13th refugee and the injuring of a child refugee by Rwandan police during protests at Kiziba camp in 2018, previously unreported by the UK press
  • A lack of clarity or certainty in Home Office assessments of human rights in the country
  • How a monitoring committee designed to oversee treatment of deportees was not established before the first flight was due to take off and may not be ready for the next flight
  • How enacting the Rwanda scheme as a Memorandum of Understanding, instead of another legal mechanism such as a treaty, means that there is nothing the UK Government can legally do if people deported to Rwanda are mistreated

The investigation’s most shocking finding is the death of Elysee Kanyandekwe, who died following violent clashes between refugee protestors and state authorities on 30 April 2018. Kanyandekwe was a Congolese refugee living in the Kiziba camp, western Rwanda. 

Kanyandekwe’s death followed the killing of 12 refugees on 20 February 2018 – but the the Byline Intelligence Team understands that this is the first time his death has been reported in the UK press. His death is not noted in the Home Office’s human rights assessment of Rwanda, which acknowledges the February violence but states “no further similar incidents have occurred since” then. 

“It is disturbing but unfortunately unsurprising that yet more evidence has emerged demonstrating that this Government has not properly assessed the risks which refugees face in Rwanda,” Matilda Bryce, asylum policy and campaigns manager at Freedom from Torture, told Byline Times. The NGO is providing expert evidence to the judicial review.

“As evidence submitted by Freedom from Torture to the High Court shows, there are many inadequacies within the Rwanda policy which will put vulnerable individuals, including torture survivors, at risk of harm.”

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Scrutiny and Rights

Since the announcement of the Rwanda scheme in April, critics have observed that the decision to use a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), rather than an international treaty, means that Parliament was unable to scrutinise the policy. 

This raises concerns about transparency – the UK has undertaken a huge shift in its migration policy that steps outside international norms when it comes to processing people seeking asylum and did so without a single reading or vote. 

But there are also bigger implications to migrant people’s human rights.

Unlike a treaty, an MOU is not legally binding and does not confer rights or obligations. This means that, should the Rwandan Government not stand by the commitments made in the agreement – for example by mistreating people when they arrive in Rwanda or by not providing access to a fair immigration process – legally there is nothing the UK can do to put things right.

According to the Public Law Project, “there is no dispute resolution process and no recourse to international courts”. 

The Home Office told Byline Times that, while not legally binding, the MOU “gives the assurances we need that the arrangement will be operated in line with our international obligations and in a manner which ensures the safety of those relocated”.

During a Home Affairs Committee evidence session in May, SNP MP Joanna Cherry raised the legal limitations of an MOU. She asked the Government to explain what would happen if a relocated person had their human rights breached on arrival in Rwanda, and what remedies the UK Government had put in place to ensure they would get the support they needed. 

In response, she was told that “there is no systematic breach of human rights in Rwanda” – with a follow-up letter stating that “anyone who wished to seek a remedy for a potential breach of their human rights would do so through the legal and criminal justice system in Rwanda” – i.e. there is no recourse to the UK legal system.

While it may be true that there is no “systematic” breach of human rights in Rwanda, the country has been criticised for its human rights record.

In its Country Information on General Human Rights in Rwanda, the Government notes that the east African nation is ranked 45 out of 49 on freedom of association; 44 out of 49 on political liberties, and 47 out of 49 on physical violence, which measures the extent to which physical integrity – freedom from political killings and torture by the Government – is respected. Rwanda’s Government has not signed up to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

In March, Human Rights Watch said that Rwanda did not match up to international standards of free speech and warned of a wave of arrests of Rwandan journalists and commentators.

According to evidence submitted during the judicial review, officials continued to advice the Government last May against a partnership with Rwanda, with an internal assessment the following month stating that human rights violations, including torture, killings, kidnap, were “common”. However, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel continued to express an interest in Rwanda, with the former Prime Minister expressing frustration at the lack of progress.

Cherry was told by the Home Office that “if there were concerns about the partnership, it would be for ministers to decide appropriately, at that time, what their response would need to be”.

This displays a worrying refusal to acknowledge how those issues arose when Israel followed a similar policy plan of deporting migrant people to Rwanda. 

Home Office Rwanda Plan‘Fundamentally Flawed’

Sian Norris

Various sources told the Home Office about human rights issues experienced by migrant people transported from Israel to Rwanda, including how they were held in “prison-like” conditions in a hotel; faced failings from the asylum system; ended up undocumented with no legal status; and were even coerced into paying smugglers to get them out of Rwanda. 

The Home Office told Byline Times that “it’s important to note that our model is considerably different from the Israeli model”.

The charity Asylos described how testimonies about Israel’s model were omitted from the final Country Policy and Information Note: Rwanda, asylum system.

Of further concern is the news that the monitoring committee – a body designed to oversee the treatment of migrant people once they arrive in Rwanda – has only just been set up, nearly five months after the MOU was signed. This means that, had the planned deportation flight on 14 June gone ahead, the mechanism to monitor the safety and security of deportees was not in place. 

The monitoring committee is able to make unannounced visits to accommodation, asylum processing centres and have “unfettered access” to relevant locations, people and documents. It would be responsible for monitoring reception arrangements, accommodation, asylum processing arrangements and assurances to treatment post asylum decision. 

Members of the monitoring committee include Harish Salve QC; former Brexit Party candidate Karina Kielbinska; Danish immigration expert Morten Lisborg; and Australian immigration expert Alexander Downer. The latter negotiated Canberra’s system of off-shoring people seeking asylum on Manus and Nauru islands – a policy that was much-criticised by human rights groups. Denmark has signalled its interest in following the UK’s lead and sending migrant people to Rwanda. 


Money and Transparency

The failure to account for additional incidents of police violence against refugees – such as the killing of Elysee Kanyandekwe – is one of many gaps in the Home Office’s assessment of Rwanda’s suitability as a place to deport people seeking asylum.

Other examples include it saying that it is “unclear how often” the Rwanda Government does not meet the time-frames of its asylum process; that the extent of anti-LGBTIQ discrimination is “unclear”; and that it is “unclear how often” appeal routes for failed asylum claims are exercised.

Another set of questions relates to the funding and costs of the scheme.

The UK has provided £120 million funding to Rwanda which, according to a Home Office fact sheet, is the “initial investment” that forms “part of a new Economic Transformation and Integration Fund”. 

Alongside this wider development investment, the UK Government “is also funding the processing costs for each person relocated, such as caseworkers, legal advice, translators, accommodation, food, healthcare, and for those granted protection, a comprehensive integration package to help them put down roots and start a new life”.

The amount of funding per deportee is not specified – with the Home Office informing Byline Times that “every person’s needs are different, but we anticipate the amount would be comparable to processing costs incurred in the UK”. 

A Freedom of Information request, by human rights lawyer Shoaib Khan, into the costs of the cancelled deportation flight on 14 June, was refused. A request sent by the Byline Intelligence Team, asking how much the policy would cost, was also refused – on the grounds that sharing this information “would be likely to prejudice the interests of the United Kingdom abroad”.

A Home Office Spokesperson said: “Our own assessment of Rwanda has found it is a fundamentally safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers. As part of our partnership, the UK is providing an initial investment of £120 million to boost the development of Rwanda, including jobs, skills and opportunities to benefit both migrants and host communities.”

Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three of this investigation

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