Rwandan asylum seekers: ‘Fight for survival’


The BBC is not disclosing the identity of Mohammed, an asylum seeker in Rwanda

“I’m fighting to survive,” a nervous-looking man tells me in a slightly trembling voice.

We are standing on a piece of wasteland in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. It is surrounded by trees to hide from prying eyes.

Mohammed came to this country to seek asylum. He says he fled from Ethiopia to Rwanda, where he had taken refuge until agents from his home country tried to kidnap him.

Mohammed says life in Kigali has been difficult, but he is so afraid of reprisal for speaking to a journalist that he has asked me not to reveal his real name or the name of his home country, except that it is in Africa.

For days we have been trying to get an asylum seeker living in Rwanda to talk to us. Time and time again people agree, then mysteriously become unavailable, often after being visited by a “community leader”.

“I applied for asylum,” Mohammed tells me.

“The authorities don’t say no, but everything is ‘tomorrow,’ or ‘come back next month.’ It’s been almost a year since they haven’t given it to me.”

I had spoken with Mohammed while the High Court in London was considering the legality of the British government’s controversial plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Earlier on Monday, the judges ruled that the UK government’s policy is lawful and that any relocations there would be “in accordance with the (UN) Refugee Convention”, although the cases of eight individual asylum seekers had not been properly considered.

The UK government believes the prospect of being sent to Rwanda to deal with asylum cases will deter people from crossing the English Channel on small boats.

But opposition critics say the policy is cruel, unworkable and expensive.

Earlier, campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) had expressed concern about conditions in Rwanda, saying there had been “repression of freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture”.

In its assessment published earlier this year, the UK government had said that “despite some restrictions on freedom of expression and/or freedom of association” it was unlikely that anyone transferred from the UK would be mistreated.

Protesters outside the High Court in London

The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has proved controversial in the UK

The United Nations refugee agency had told the court that Rwanda lacked the “minimal components for an accessible, reliable, fair and efficient asylum system”.

It was concerned that people could be sent back to countries where they are tortured.

And in a June report, the UN agency said “the efficiency and timeliness of the asylum procedure is a concern, with decisions taking up to one to two years in some cases.”

Mohammed says he feels his life is in limbo. He cannot work legally because he does not have the proper papers.

“Friends and relatives help out,” he tells me, adding that odd jobs give him a little income.

But with a wife and kids to support, the uncertainty takes its toll.

He says he would like to leave Rwanda and go “anywhere there is peace, like Canada or Australia”.

One of the concerns raised by campaigners against the British plan is the treatment of LGBT people in Rwanda.

Unlike in some neighboring countries, homosexual acts are not illegal in Rwanda. But in an open letter to the UK Home Office, HRW said that “in practice, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face stigma in Rwanda”.

In 2021, it documented how authorities “arbitrarily detained, harassed, insulted and beat” nine transgender or gay people at Kigali’s Gikondo Transit Center, an unofficial detention facility, HRW said.

Gikondo transit center

HRW has criticized the Gikondo Transit Center in Rwanda’s capital, shown above in an archive photo

“The interviewees said they were targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and treated worse than other detainees. Police officers or guards accused them of being homeless, thieves or delinquents and kept them in a room reserved for “offenders” men, said the campaign group.

One person who understands the stigma of homosexuality in Rwanda is Patrick Uwayezu.

He is a gay member of the Evangelical Church of God in Africa in Rwanda, the only one in Kigali that welcomes LGBT members.

A petite man, with a powerful singing voice, leads the choir on the Sunday we attend church.

In retrospect, he tells me that LGBT people often find it difficult to access services such as health care because of their attitudes towards them. It can even affect people’s job opportunities.

“If you hide your identity, they can give you a job. But if [employers find out] your identity they’ll tell you, ‘Go, go, we can’t work with you.'”

“I think a lot of people in this country don’t understand us,” he says.

Patrick Uwayezu

Patrick Uwayezu says LGBT people often find it difficult to access services such as healthcare in Rwanda

During our six-day visit, we repeatedly asked for a meeting with the government. Although a spokesperson agreed to do it, the promised interview never materialized.

We did receive a statement in which a spokesman said: “Discrimination in all its forms is prohibited by our constitution and Rwanda welcomes everyone.”

It added that the UN’s position was “clearly contradictory” as it criticized Rwanda for still sending asylum seekers to the country, including more than 100 from Libya earlier this year.

But in response to the London High Court ruling that the UK government’s plan was legal, the Rwandan government welcomed the decision, saying it was “ready to provide asylum seekers and migrants with security and the opportunity to start a new life.” to build in Rwanda”.

There are also success stories of refugees in Rwanda. Teklay Teame arrived here almost 25 years ago, in 1998, from Eritrea.

He now runs a chain of wholesalers and supermarkets.

His staff are unloading a truckload of large boxes and taking them to one of his many stores when I meet him.

Tekla Teame

Teklay Teame came to Rwanda from Eritrea in 1998

“When I arrived here, everything was new to me. But the people were so friendly that it didn’t take me long to integrate. I started with four employees. Now I have over 600,” he says.

Unlike many refugees, Mr. Teklay had the money needed to start his business.

Still, he says, Rwanda offers opportunities for everyone, as long as you play by the rules.

Teklay says he knows Eritreans who “came here as refugees with nothing. But they started their own lives and businesses.”

I ask him if he understands the fears of opponents of the plan to send asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda.

“I don’t know what they’re afraid of, but I don’t see any reason to be afraid here,” he replies.

The view as the sun sets over Kigali is spectacular: a bright red sun disappearing behind lush green hills.

Both the traffic and the city below it are orderly and efficient, something that countries around the world would envy.

Those opposed to the UK government deal had said there is a real sense of fear lurking beneath the surface.

Therefore – as was widely expected – opponents of this plan are likely to appeal.

It means that the debate over whether Rwanda is safe for asylum seekers will not end today.

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