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Rwanda Creates Nearly a Million Refugees Since Signing Asylum Deal with UK Government

The Rwanda-backed M23 is continuing its campaign of mass rape and murder in the DRC – with the UK turning a blind-eye

Then Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Birutaare sign the partnership agreement in April 2022. Photo: Jean Bizimana/Reuters/Alamy

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Twelve miles from the Rwanda border, in the shadow of the Virunga Mountains, a city of tents sprawls across the volcanic rock. A boy in his early teens points out the explosions lighting up the sky just a few miles away. There are no schools set up here yet – the thousands of children stuck here have little to do – but he’s keen to show off his few words of English. “One – two – three – M23!” he says, miming an AK-47, as artillery fired at the M23 militia blasts in the background. 

This is Bulengo, one of the Eastern DRC’s many camps for internally displaced people, where numbers have swelled to around 120,000 since 2021, when a rebel militia that many thought had disappeared resurged and tore through the North Kivu region.

After nearly a decade of quiet, the M23 – an organisation with several former and current leaders sanctioned by the UK or jailed for war crimes – is back, and as brutal as ever.

The M23’s main backer, Rwanda, has been pressured into cutting off support before but, this time, bolstered by the UK’s unwavering support, it has little inclination to pull back its proxy death squads from its campaign of mass rape and murder. 

“When the M23 came we didn’t have anywhere to go,” says Dee, a woman who fled to the camp from Kitchanga with her seven children when M23 stormed the city nearly two years ago. “They have their own rules that we couldn’t live with. They kill people and take the women away and do bad things to them.”

Like most people here in Bulengo, Dee’s children were born long after the Rwanda genocide, but its legacy has pursued them across borders and generations.

Over a hellish 100 days in 1994, and with the complicity of the French Government, extremists from Rwanda’s dominant Hutu ethnic group murdered a million minority Tutsis and any Hutus who tried to stop them. Abandoned by the international community, a Tutsi-led army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, fought back and won a decisive victory – but as both Hutu and Tutsi civilians fled across the border to escape civil war, the violence moved with them.

New militias formed under the guise of protecting their own ethnic groups, enacting hideous massacres on each other’s communities in the Eastern DRC, while using the conflict as an excuse to forcibly recruit child soldiers, sexually enslave women and girls, and seize parts of the DRC’s enormously lucrative mineral trade for personal gain.

The families sheltering in Bulengo are Rwandan Hutus, making them a target for the Tutsi M23s. 

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In 2012, a UN Security Council investigation into this militia found that the Rwandan Government was sending the group money, fighters, and weapons. International bodies and foreign governments, including the UK, suspended aid to Rwanda, and the Rwandan Government – which relied on this aid to make up 35% of its budget – softened its stance.

In March 2013, General Bosco ‘The Terminator’ Ntaganda, a Rwandan senior M23 leader, handed himself in to the US Embassy in Kigali and was transferred to the Hague, where he was convicted on 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, earning the longest sentence in the International Criminal Court’s history. The M23, meanwhile, dwindled almost out of existence. Until now.  

In the two years since the M23 resumed hostilities, investigation after investigation by the UN, human rights groups, Rwanda’s African neighbours, and governments around the world has concluded that Rwanda is, again, largely responsible. 

“Kigali has a long record in destabilising eastern Congo, leading to mass displacement and immense human suffering,” says Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “The Rwandan support to the M23 in weaponry, troops and direct military intervention has been well-documented and Rwandan officials involved may be complicit in M23 abuses and war crimes.”

As in 2012, many governments are urgently calling for Rwanda to end this complicity.

“State support of armed groups is unacceptable, and we reiterate our call on Rwanda to end its support to UN- and U.S.-sanctioned M23 and to immediately withdraw Rwanda Defence Force personnel from eastern DRC,” a US State Department spokesperson wrote in an email. 

Missing from these calls, though, is the UK.

Rather than pressuring Rwanda to pull back from the DRC since 2022, the UK Government has actively stepped up its support for Kigali – and Kigali has stepped up its support for the M23. 

Ignoring the British High Commissioner in Rwanda’s human rights concerns, and Foreign Office warnings that this would make it hard for the UK to challenge Rwanda’s behaviour inside and outside the country, in July 2021, then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab approved Rwanda for “intensive engagement” in the UK’s new scheme to remove refugees seeking asylum in the UK to third countries. Within three months, the M23s – who had lain low for nearly a decade – began to regroup. 

In March 2022, while the UK Government was preparing the scheme’s funding documents to be signed by the Chancellor, the Rwanda-backed militia attacked UN peacekeepers and Congolese forces in the Eastern DRC, and shot down a UN helicopter. Forty-six thousand civilians were driven from their homes. In a single week, Rwanda had helped create nearly half as many refugees as the 92,000 the UK was looking to clear from its backlog of applications. 

At this point, the Rwanda agreement was still weeks from being signed.

The UK could have pulled out or demanded Kigali end support of the M23 as a condition of the deal. This had, after all, worked in 2012, when the UK – then Rwanda’s second-largest individual donor after the US – blocked £16 million in aid over concerns Rwanda was sending fighters and equipment to the M23.

But this time around, in the wake of the attacks, the UK publicly announced the new refugee resettlement deal – the Migration and Economic Development Plan – on 14 April, and made its first payment of £120 million to the Rwandan Government the same month. 

A Guardian investigation found that the UK Government also asked the Foreign Office to rewrite its own report on Rwanda’s safety and human rights record to make it sound more positive, and even sent the document to a Rwandan Colonel for review. Far worse than simply staying silent, as the Foreign Office had feared, the UK seemed willing to manipulate its own findings in the services of Rwandan PR.

Almost immediately, Rwanda-backed atrocities escalated.


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In May, Rwanda sent 1,000 soldiers across the border to support a major M23 offensive, attacking more UN peacekeepers and seizing territory. Over the next few days, the militia tried to seize the provincial capital, Goma, displacing another 70,000 people. 

The UK Government sent Rwanda another £20million. 

Over the next 12 months, M23 militants waged a campaign of unbridled destruction and violence across the Eastern DRC. In the village of Kinshishe, investigators documented 14 mass graves left behind by the departing militia, while women in Kanombe, Kitchanga, and Mushaki describe being gang-raped in front of their children and husbands.

“As they were raping me, one said ‘we’ve come from Rwanda to destroy you’,” a survivor told Human Rights Watch. A string of UN Security Council reports asserted that Rwanda was backing these atrocities, triggering international outcry – except from the UK, which instead paid Rwanda another no-strings-attached £100 million.

By October 2023 – 18 months after the UK signed its deal with Rwanda – not a single asylum seeker had been relocated to the country. A record number of people had, however, been displaced in the DRC, with almost a million of these refugees directly attributable to the M23. By now, the UK had paid Rwanda over a quarter of a billion pounds while refusing to answer questions about how the money was being spent.

“The UK Government continuously refuses to call out and condemn Rwanda’s support for M23,” says former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has also long campaigned against UK complicity in conflict mineral exploitation in the DRC. “How much more violence, death and displacement should the people of the DRC endure before the international community wakes up and takes action?”

Asked whether any of this money had been or could be used to fund either M23 rebels or the Rwandan military’s illegal incursions into DRC, a Home Office spokesperson said that the money was “intended” for various development sectors (and to claim otherwise would be “simply incorrect”) but did not state whether funds had actually been used for this purpose and did not respond to repeated requests for clarification.

The spokesperson also refused to name a single project that had been or would be funded by the MEDP or the Economic Transformation and Integration Fund (ETIF). They declined to say which Rwandan ministry was responsible for administering the ETIF or whether the UK Government has any way of ensuring these funds are used for their intended purpose. 

The spokesperson said that initial set-up costs for asylum processing were covered by a separate payment (of £20 million) in 2022, leaving the other £220 million unaccounted for to date.

In an email, the Rwandan High Commissioner’s Office in London said that “funds received under the MEDP go towards ensuring we are prepared to receive the migrants when they arrive, and towards Rwanda’s economic and social development”.. It declined to provide any specific examples of development projects or investments. Asked repeatedly whether any UK money is used to fund the M23, the High Commissioner’s Office described the militia as a “Congolese problem” but did not deny the allegation.

“Rwanda is not responsible for security and governance failures in the DRC, including the integration of the genocidal militia FDLR into the DRC armed forces,” it said, referring both to the brutal Rwandan Hutu militia that collaborated with the DRC army to fight M23 in 2022, and to one of the M23’s main grievances – that its fighters have not been integrated into the DRC army. “We will not allow this conflict to spill over across our border,” it said. 

Labour’s Shadow Immigration Secretary Stephen Kinnock, said: “These are very concerning allegations that the Government should be taking seriously. Instead, they’re ploughing ahead with a failing scheme.”

The UK Government is yet to disclose any information about how Rwanda has spent the £240 million paid or precisely what it will do with the tens of millions more promised this year.

In 2022, the Foreign Office told Devex that the money was paid by the Treasury, not through the aid budget, and that it didn’t know what it would be used for. In September, the Home Secretary Suella Braverman claimed that briefing MPs on the Rwanda scheme’s costs would be too “commercially sensitive”. 

In March 2023, Braverman travelled to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to promote the project, accompanied by a hand-picked entourage of journalists. This included a well-documented visit to a newly constructed housing development, Bwiza Riverside Homes, which Braverman claimed would be used to house resettled refugees. But an employee at Bwiza said the housing development has nothing to do with the UK Government and none of the units would be used for refugees.

When we visited in February, joining a tour of starter homes with a Rwandan couple and their toddler, more than half of the units had already been sold. “This project is 100% sponsored by the Government of Rwanda,” the estate agent said. “It’s a Rwandan project to get [Rwandan] people a home.” He claimed Braverman had only come to Bwiza to meet graduates from a construction training scheme they were running in partnership with a British firm.

At another site in Gatanga, where Braverman gave a speech claiming refugee accommodation would be ready in six months, construction appeared to be still in the early stages, a year on. Signage also indicated that it is a Rwandan Housing Authority project, with no mention of the UK.

Asked why Braverman visited these locations and whether she knew her claims about refugee housing at Bwiza were untrue, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We have provided funding to help cover accommodation but the exact locations are a decision for the Rwandan Government.”

The Rwandan Housing Authority did not reply to requests for comment.

Corbyn added: “As long as the Government continues to champion its shameful flagship policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, it will fail in fulfilling its international obligations toward refugees, and their rights to live in safety and peace.”

It is unclear how Rwanda will meet the capacity to resettle any asylum seekers from the UK. There are already 130,000 refugees in the country, most of them hemmed into five enormous camps, where they have waited 10 or even 20 years to be processed. Many are stateless Congolese Tutsis either born in the camps or who arrived as young children, and have grown into adults with little chance of ever living a normal life.

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“We don’t have many opportunities here because there is no hope of getting citizenship. The only hope is to go to another country,” says Romeo – his nickname – a shy, aspiring musician living in Nyabiheke IDP camp, four hours’ drive into the countryside from Kigali. 

Romeo fled anti-Tutsi violence in the Eastern DRC in 2007, when he was just seven years old, and has lived here ever since. His father died here, still waiting for a decision, and his mother is getting frail. Most people want to be resettled in the UK, the US, or Canada, he says. “There are people in the camp who are not happy because they don’t have the same opportunities as Rwandans. I would like to go to the UK.”

There’s a remote chance Romeo may get his wish. Under the terms of the deal, the UK has agreed to resettle “a small number of some of the most vulnerable refugees hosted in Rwanda”, according to the Home Office, although the conditions of the deal are hazy.

In the meantime, young people languishing in these camps risk being exploited by the Rwandan Government to fuel violence in neighbouring countries. 

In a cemetery near the tiny village of Vugizo in Burundi, which neighbours both Rwanda and the DRC, rows of new crosses mark the graves of those massacred by the RED-Tabara, a militia that Burundi designates a terror group.

In December, members of the militia crossed from the DRC to murder 20 people, including 12 children. Burundi responded by closing its border with Rwanda, which it blames for funding and sheltering the group. Rwanda denies this claim, but in 2015, an expert panel advising the UN Security Council reported that RED-Tabara combatants told interviewers they were recruited directly from refugee camps inside Rwanda and trained by Rwandan military personnel. The M23 has also recruited fighters from Rwandan camps in the past.

Brendan O’Hara, the SNP’s Westminster Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said: “Rwanda is not a safe country. It has an extremely concerning human rights record, and the UK Home Secretary’s own briefings say as much. The UK Government should not be spending hundreds of millions of pounds in the middle of a cost of living crisis to send some of the most vulnerable people in the world to a country where they could face further human rights violations.”

In the meantime, M23 fighters continue to ravage the Eastern DRC. Militants are fast closing in on Goma, threatening another catastrophic refugee crisis. 

“The UK should call out Rwanda on its support for the M23 and take steps to further sanction M23 leaders and the Rwandan commanders most responsible for providing military assistance,” Lewis Mudge, from Human Rights Watch, said. “There is still time for the UK to change its blinkered approach to the horrors taking place.”

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