Rwanda Isn’t the Safe Haven the U.K. Wants

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

For Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the deal is not only a cash cow—it also helps him to escape accountability for Rwanda’s violent past.


Despite being rebuked by British and European courts, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has decided to sign a new agreement with the Rwandan government, which bends the law in its favor to deport migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in the United Kingdom to Rwanda. Although the project is still far from being implemented, Sunak has succeeded in getting his key bill through the House of Commons after a Conservative Party rebellion failed to materialize.

While No. 10 Downing Street’s relentless pursuit of this policy is tied to its key electoral promise to combat illegal immigration by any means, for Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the deal is not only a cash cow, but it also helps him to escape accountability for his own policies toward many hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees and their descendants, which his government has refused to let back in over the past three decades.

More importantly, being designated by the U.K. as a safe haven for its own migrants consecrates Kagame’s carefully constructed Potemkin village façade of a prosperous and stable Rwanda under his leadership.

The Rwandan government consistently asserts that financial gain is not its primary interest in the migrant deal, a stance underscored by Kagame’s comment at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Kagame suggested that Rwanda would be open to returning the funds if migrants “don’t come.”

This statement, however, was walked back in part in a statement made later by Yolande Makolo, a Rwandan government spokesperson. Makolo stated, “Under the terms of the agreement, Rwanda has no obligation to return any of the funds paid. However, if no migrants come to Rwanda under the scheme, and the U.K. government wishes to request a refund of the portion of the funding allocated to support the migrants, we will consider this request.”

The British government defends its plan to use Rwanda as a dumping ground for undesirable migrants and asylum-seekers as the solution to the U.K.’s illegal immigration crisis. But the  plan rests on the Rwandan government’s ability to absorb and retain foreign refugees and migrants in a country that remains one of the poorest and most densely populated in the world.

Even if one ignores the Rwandan government’s appalling human rights record, its role in creating new refugee populations by fomenting war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, one should consider Kagame’s government’s track record with hundreds of thousands of its own refugees who have variously fled war, dictatorship, and poverty. Indeed, Kagame’s policy, while expedient for the British government, exposes the United Kingdom to the risk of becoming entangled in Rwanda’s unresolved legacy of genocide and—potentially—another outbreak of ethnic violence.

IN 1994, WHEN I WAS JUST 2 years old, I was part of the mass exodus of Rwandans fleeing to Zaire (now Congo). Having lost both Hutu and Tutsi family members or relatives, we were fleeing the massacres conducted by both extremist militias and Kagame’s rebel forces. Kagame’s forces invaded Zaire under the pretense of pursuing the perpetrators of genocide. In so doing, they indiscriminately massacred tens of thousands of people, many of them innocent civilians, and dismantled refugee camps in both Rwanda and Zaire. Years later, the United Nation’s  2010 Mapping Report detailed allegations that forces under Kagame’s command, along with their allies, may have committed acts of genocide against ethnic Hutu refugees in Eastern Congo between 1993 and 2003.

Thirty years after the 1994 genocide, which triggered an exodus of more than 2 million people fleeing the country, there remains a significant Rwandan refugee presence in various African countries, including Malawi, the Republic of Congo, and Zambia. This exodus predominantly involved Hutus and those opposed to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and its advancing massacres. Today, many of these refugees, including survivors of the atrocities in 1994, live in fear of being targeted by the long arm of the Rwandan government or being forced to return—whether through legal extradition or kidnapping.

In Congo alone, the U.N. refugee agency estimated that 207,956 Rwandan refugees remained in November 2023. UNHCR acknowledges that this estimate significantly underrepresents the actual number of Rwandan refugees there, particularly those who are stateless, due to the absence of a proper civil registration system and the challenges associated with the fears and threats that they face.

A UNHCR-funded study found that the vast majority of long-term Rwandan refugees in the African Great Lakes region are stateless, meaning that they are no longer recognized by Rwanda as Rwandan nationals. Consequently, these hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants are not even included in the UNHCR’s reported figures. These refugees lack fundamental rights of protection and humanitarian assistance, and they are regularly the targets of attacks by the Rwandan government-backed M23 rebel movement.

KAGAME’S PROJECTION OF GENEROSITY and capacity in welcoming foreign refugees is not new, and it obscures the fact that the Rwandan government has little experience permanently housing or integrating large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers. Most of the foreign refugees and asylum-seekers who end up in Rwanda tend to use the country as a transit point on the way to a third, safe country.

For example, in 2017, Kagame’s government offered to welcome as many as 30,000 human trafficking victims trapped in Libya. But most of these migrants didn’t stay for long: In September 2019, the Rwandan government signed an agreement with UNHCR and the African Union to set up an Emergency Transit Mechanism for refugees and asylum-seekers from Libya. Under this scheme, the evacuees live in temporary, U.N.-run facilities in the Rwandan town of Gashora before they are resettled permanently to safe countries such as Canada.

Out of more than 2,000 refugees and asylum-seekers flown to Rwanda from Libya between September 2019 and December 2023, more than 1,200—or nearly two-thirds—have been resettled to safe third countries. Similarly, very few of the 4,000 asylum-seekers who left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda between 2013 and 2018 stayed in Rwanda, according to UNHCR, which expressed concern that “these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe.”

The U.K.-Rwanda Asylum Partnership Treaty includes a provision that banks on the Rwandan government enacting legal reforms to address the lack of protection against the risk of refoulement, which was a concern raised by both UNHCR in 2022 and the British Supreme Court when it rejected a previous version of the plan in November 2023. But in a legal analysis published on Monday, UNHCR noted that it had “not observed changes in the practice of asylum adjudication that would overcome the concerns set out in its 2022 analysis and in the detailed evidence presented to the Supreme Court.”

The treaty also stipulates that those who do not apply for asylum as well as those who are denied asylum in Rwanda will be entitled to permanent residence in the country.

The new U.K.-Rwanda deal signed by U.K. Home Secretary James Cleverly with the Rwandan government includes the establishment of a monitoring committee and an appeal body of judges from around the world to address concerns previously raised by the U.K. Supreme Court. While these ideas could theoretically protect migrants, it is hypocritical for the U.K. to send its own unwanted migrants to Kigali when Rwandan refugees’ pleas to return home were never heard.

Voluntary return cannot happen until the Rwandan government shows interest in engaging in honest dialogue and reconciliation for a negotiated political solution. Political opposition leader Victoire Ingabire has long advocated for an inclusive Rwandan dialogue to explore such options and facilitate the return of refugees. But the Rwandan government continues to refuse this dialogue.

Britons should not allow themselves to be conned by Kagame into believing that Rwanda is a safe or viable destination for the migrants that the United Kingdom rejects. More than the money, the deal is a gift that allows him once and for all to shut down the conversation about the return of his own refugees.

Even worse, by ignoring the problem of Rwandan refugees and failing, like previous leaders, to create conditions for their safe return, Kagame is setting Rwanda up for the next round of violent strife in the country, which will endanger both Rwandans and the migrants that the United Kingdom sends there. The U.K. and Rwanda’s international partners will have a share of responsibility if they don’t do enough to prevent this.


Norman Ishimwe Sinamenye is a Rwandan affairs analyst and the president of Jambo Asbl, a Brussels-based Rwandan human rights organization. He is also one of the co-founders of All For Rwanda, an international movement dedicated to supporting, protecting, and developing a dignified solution for the return of Rwandan refugees to Rwanda. Twitter: @normanishimwe