The UK Supreme Court ruled on 15 November 2023 that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful. The plan would have seen tens of thousands of asylum seekers sent from the UK to Rwanda, which would then process and host such refugees indefinitely.
Along with countless refugee and human rights groups – including the United Nations – I raised red flags about the plan and welcome the decision to halt it. My research and work over more than a decade has focused on the livelihoods and survival of refugees in east Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.
The UK court’s decision is grounded in the view that Rwanda is unsafe for asylum seekers because it might force them to return to their home country. Forced return is against international human rights law as refugees and asylum seekers may be persecuted again in their country of origin.
Much of the recent media focus has been on what the ruling means for the UK and its migration policy. But it’s also important to understand the implications for Rwanda itself and for the refugees already residing there.
Rwanda currently hosts more than 135,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Most are from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. It’s one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and has a high poverty rate, which matters for its ability to host refugees. In the UK’s effort to deter irregular migration, it sought to outsource the asylum-seeking process and ultimately refugee hosting to Rwanda. The east African nation would in return receive development funds. Neither side of this deal was taking the needs of asylum seekers into account.
The recent UK court ruling highlights two things that Rwanda and its development and humanitarian partners need to consider:
Failing to address the current gaps in these two areas reflects a disregard for human rights that falls on the international community’s shoulders, too.
Rwanda’s human rights record
The evidence considered in the UK ruling adds to ongoing documentation about Rwanda’s poor human rights record. Refugees and citizens in the country have experienced political repression, including being killed during protests. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented Kigali’s use of threats, kidnapping and even killing of Rwandan refugees and migrants abroad who undertake or are affiliated to political activism.
Worrying past evidence of the treatment of asylum seekers includes the outcome of a secretive deal between Israel, Rwanda and Uganda to receive African asylum seekers (mostly from Eritrea and Sudan) between 2014 and 2017. A majority of those deported from Israel to Rwanda immediately left, some through dangerous migration routes.
In its recent ruling, the UK court concluded
there were substantial grounds for believing that there were real risks that asylum claims would not be properly determined by the Rwandan authorities. There were, therefore, real risks of refoulement forced return.
The evidence provided by the UN Refugee Agency highlighted serious issues in Rwanda’s asylum system. This included a lack of adequate legal representation, the risk of bias by judges and lawyers in politically sensitive cases, and current practices of forced return. A failure to comply with international law suggests Rwanda may well continue to benefit from development funding while sending asylum seekers home or pressuring them to leave the country.
To rectify these failings, the government of Rwanda must commit to eliminating forced return. In the absence of enforcement mechanisms in Rwanda to do so, the international community – including the UN Refugee Agency and activists in the region – must continue to document evidence of human rights violations and speak out. If these violations don’t cease, Rwanda should no longer be funded as the “donor darling” that it has been.
Areas for improvement
At the same time, the UK court ruling illustrates the need for humanitarian and development partners to support Rwanda to improve its conditions for refugees and its asylum-seeking process. In its written evidence for the case, the UN Refugee Agency assessed that
long-term and fundamental engagement is required to develop Rwanda’s national asylum structures to fairly adjudicate individual asylum claims.
This statement is both a critique of the limitations to the existing asylum infrastructure in Rwanda and an important call for action.
As of 31 October 2023, the UN Refugee Agency’s Rwanda operation was only 38% funded. This means that refugees within Rwanda lack healthcare support and have limited access to legal counselling and assistance.
These figures demand a closer look at the treatment of refugees in Rwanda and the region. These funding deficits restrict the rights of those refugees most in need.
Supreme court rules Rwanda plan unlawful: a legal expert explains the judgment, and what happens next
Efforts to improve the asylum system can and should build on the promising practices within Rwanda that relate to refugees. These include over 90% of children born as refugees having their birth registered, and a provision on the right to work. Urban refugees and refugee students can also access the national community-based health insurance scheme.
Non-legal barriers – such as lack of access to capital for businesses and poor camp infrastructure, including limited electricity – still play a role in impeding access to these services for many refugees. However, these are important rights to continue to actualise – and ones that many other refugee-hosting countries don’t offer at all.
The court’s attention to Rwanda’s human rights violations may lead to restricted development funding or wider repercussions for the country from the international community. But there’s a need for more – not less – investment in refugee assistance in Rwanda.
There are two best possible outcomes of the UK-Rwanda migration deal being deemed unlawful.
First is that it leads to commitments by the government of Rwanda to improve its treatment of refugees, including Rwandan refugees abroad. Second is that it encourages the UK and other countries to examine their own unlawful practices, such as the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and ongoing attempts to externalise asylum.
Just as Rwanda’s human rights record should not be brushed under the rug, neither should the international community’s limited support for refugees.