Fresh Concerns About Risk to LGBTQ+ and Middle Eastern Migrant People in Rwanda
Buried in the High Court judgment which found the Rwanda scheme to be lawful are claims that LGBTQ+ and Middle Eastern asylum seekers have faced discrimination
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The Rwandan Government “may discriminate against” LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, raising further concerns about an agreement to deport migrants from the UK to the east African country.
The Migration and Economic Partnership between the two countries was signed last April, under which the UK can deport people who arrive in this country ‘illegally’ to Rwanda, where they can claim asylum. The scheme has yet to deport anyone, after facing legal challenges.
In an 139-page High Court judgement published last month, the legal counsel for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Lawrence Bottinick provided a witness statement which claimed the Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration (DGIE) “may discriminate against asylum claimants who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual or inter-sex”.
Bottinick said the UNHCR was aware of two cases where this had occurred.
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Bottinick’s statement also said the DGIE had refused asylum claims from people arriving from Syria, Afghanistan and Libya on five occasions. The people sought asylum at Kigali airport and were refused entry, before being removed from Rwanda.
The “airport cases are an indication that the DGIE discriminates against those who are not nationals of neighbouring states and, especially, against persons from Middle Eastern countries,” the judgment reads.
The statement adds to the mounting human rights concerns about the Rwanda scheme and the safety of people from specific groups or nationalities in the country.
Claire Moseley, founder of Care4Calais which launched a legal challenge against the Rwanda scheme, told Byline Times: “The UNHCR presented compelling evidence to the court of why refugees will not be safe in Rwanda. Rwanda’s track record of failing to protect those with claims based on sexual orientation is yet another reason why this brutal policy must not go ahead. It will not stop small boat crossings and it risks linking the UK to human rights abuses.”
LGBTQ+ Rights in Rwanda
Rwanda has liberal laws when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights – homosexuality is decriminalised and LGBTQ+ people are allowed to serve in the military. However, the community faces discrimination, with the NGO Rainbow Migration stating it is “not safe for LGBTQ+ people”.
The UK Home Office’s Equality Impact Assessment into the partnership acknowledges that ill-treatment of gay and lesbian people is “more than one-off”, but argues that the equality impact is “neutral” rather than “negative”.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community face stigma, while police have used the country’s public morality laws to target LGBTQ+ people. In September 2021, Rwandan authorities rounded up and arbitrarily detained more than a dozen gay and transgender people, sex workers, street children in the months before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. They were accused of “not representing Rwandan values”.
While homosexuality is decriminalised, transgender people face enhanced discrimination. There is no legal recognition for transgender identities. The UK Government has recognised that transgender women seeking asylum would be at risk of “indirect discrimination” if relocated to Rwanda. Trans people – and particularly trans women – experience ill treatment including arbitrary arrests, detention, and degrading treatment, it explained.
The Middle East and Asylum Claims
The Government’s first planned deportation flight last summer included Syrian and Afghan migrant people. However, Bottinick’s evidence raises concerns about their potential treatment, with claims that people from Middle Eastern countries face discrimination in Rwanda.
More than 45,000 people entered the UK on small boats across the Channel in 2022. While last year the majority came from Albania, in the years 2018-2021, most people crossing the Channel arrived from Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Syria, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Sudan. Those coming from Afghanistan made up a quarter of irregular entries in the first-quarter of 2022, as the Taliban takeover fuelled a refugee crisis.
The Home Office’s Equality Impact Assessment noted that, while Rwanda has a good record of welcoming refugees, the overwhelming majority come from neighbouring countries, and therefore “the integration into society of asylum seekers/refugees of certain nationalities, national or ethnic origins or colour thus presents a potential new challenge”. It goes on to note that racial discrimination is prohibited by the Rwandan Constitution.
Many people come to the UK from the Middle East due to historic, familial and cultural ties, making it easier to integrate after arrival. Before this year, the largest nationality group of those crossing the Channel were from Iran – the UK has a large, rooted Iranian community.
This is not the case for Middle Eastern or European migrants travelling to Rwanda. The Home Office Equality Impact Assessment notes that some efforts are being made to support integration, for example by ensuring those deported from the UK are placed in accommodation centres close to appropriate centres of worship.
However, Bottinick’s statement raises concerns that Middle Eastern people sent to Rwanda may face discrimination, including by the authorities.
A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “Our ground-breaking Migration Partnership will see those who make dangerous and illegal journeys to the UK relocated to Rwanda, where they will be supported to build new lives. Our thorough assessment of Rwanda found that it is a safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers. The court recently upheld this and found that our policy is lawful.
“We remain committed to delivering this policy to break the business model of people smuggling gangs and prevent further loss of life.”
The Home Office said no one would be transferred to Rwanda if it was not safe for them.