Calais, France – On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom unanimously ruled that the government’s plan to send more than 24,000 refugees to Rwanda in a controversial 140 million pounds ($174m) deal is unlawful.
In blocking the deal, the apex court upheld rulings by lower courts over the last year that asylum claimants sent there were also at risk of being returned to their home countries, an international law principle known as refoulement.
“There are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda,” part of the judgment read on Wednesday.
The ruling has dealt a blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s much-touted migration policy and could potentially fracture the ruling Conservative party ahead of next year’s general election. But those at the centre of the controversial policy say they are relieved by the outcome.
“I am very happy to not go to Rwanda! Maybe my dreams will come true to stay in the UK to work hard, to continue my business studies which I began in Sudan, and to hopefully see my family someday soon,” says Mahmoud Altigani, 26, one of those who was to be sent to Rwanda.
Until April 15, he ran a cafe and a retail business in Khartoum. Just before noon that day, he heard the deep roaring of military helicopters in the sky, followed by combat jeeps thundering through the streets.
Sudan’s civil war had caught up with his family: The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) were bombarding residential areas in Altigani’s hometown of el-Fasher in the country’s northwest because the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had taken cover amongst civilians. His three sisters and mother scrambled under a bed, while he and his two brothers took shelter in the middle of their red mud-brick house.
During a short respite, Altigani led his family into the back of his pickup truck and sped off to stay with a friend in the south of the city. Two days later, his phone screen lit with a text message from his neighbour: “Call me. Your house has been bombed.”
When the attacks ended, Altigani returned to see the damage and collect some belongings. In the partially destroyed house, he saw guns laid out everywhere and a soldier sleeping in his bed. “This is our house now,” the soldier said. “You can’t come in.”
This time, Altigani and his family fled to a refugee reception centre in Tina, close to the border with Chad. Because he was the eldest of his siblings, his family decided he should seek asylum in the UK. In Tripoli, working briefly at a small supermarket while awaiting the Mediterranean crossing to Lampedusa, he first heard about the Rwanda asylum plan.
He was shocked but continued on his journey.
After travelling northwards through Europe, he finally arrived in the small French city of Calais, the closest point in mainland Europe to the UK, through which thousands of migrants pass before risking their lives to cross the English Channel and request asylum on the other side.
The Rwanda asylum plan is an immigration policy conceived by former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and championed by the incumbent Sunak, to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda. It was a promise made to garner votes for the 2024 election and to deter people crossing the Channel in small boats, to get to the UK – a journey thousands make yearly.
According to the deal signed in April 2022, the UK was to send undocumented migrants in chartered flights to Rwanda, a country roughly the same size as Wales, for a five-year period. The African nation would then be responsible for processing their asylum claims and either granting them refugee status or deporting them to their country of origin.
Two months after the agreement was signed, a Boeing 767 plane was on the tarmac at Boscombe Down military base in southwest England, engines whirring and ready for takeoff to Rwanda. Onboard were 37 refugees, harnessed and flanked by security guards. Minutes before it was to take off, the European Court of Human Rights issued last-minute injunctions that halted the deportation and ultimately grounded the plane.
Since then, the deal has been contested in the British court system.
While the UK claims the scheme will help curb human trafficking, activists have said the plan violates the core principle of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which states that no refugee be returned to a country where their safety and freedom cannot be ensured. The British government insists Rwanda is a safe destination for refugees, but many experts disagree.
Indeed, Rwanda currently harbours 135,000 refugees, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. “It is a huge refugee population for a country such as Rwanda,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights director at Amnesty International. “There are serious questions about the conditions for the current refugees there. They’re not getting a system that’s designed to address their immediate needs.”
The majority of these refugees fled to Rwanda as a result of the Second Congo War, which ended in 2003 and led hundreds of thousands to seek safety in neighbouring countries.
Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan opposition figure and human rights activist who served eight years in prison on charges of “terrorism” and allegedly threatening national security, believes her country cannot take in more refugees.
“Twenty years later, [these] refugees are still in the refugee camps. A very small number of them have been able to integrate into society and leave the camps,” she told Al Jazeera. “In Rwanda, we have refugee camps all over the place and what have we provided them in all this time?”
In February 2018, hundreds of Congolese refugees walked out of the Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda to protest a cut in food rations. After three days of refusing to return to the camp, police encircled the crowd and fired on them. At least 12 refugees were killed and 66 were imprisoned.
When asked about possibly moving to Rwanda to build a new life, Altigani who is currently staying near Birmingham, in one of the hundreds of hotels that the British government pays to house migrants while their asylum cases are sorted, searches on his cellphone. In a few flicks of a finger, he brings up pictures. “These are refugee camps right now in Rwanda. It is much worse than Calais,” he said. “It is better for me to die than to be sent there.”
Experts also express concern about Rwanda’s human rights record, citing incidents involving arbitrary imprisonment, acts of torture, and the restriction of free speech.
Sarah Bireete, executive director of the Centre for Constitutional Governance in neighbouring Uganda explains why this matters. “The standard that should be used is the way the country treats its nationals,” she said. “Otherwise, what guarantees are there that they will respect refugees and asylum seekers?”
A recent Human Rights Watch report says not only critics in Rwanda are in danger, as “killings, kidnappings, beatings, and enforced disappearances” trail those who have escaped.
Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International raises another point. “Even if Rwanda was a rosy and safe place, it simply is not proper for one country to think that because it is financially and politically powerful, that it can use its advantages to simply cast off its responsibilities onto another country,” he said. “Every country in the world is required to provide protection for people fleeing persecution.”
Still, the UK was determined to go ahead with the deal until Wednesday’s ruling. The deal was to include an additional payment of 105,000 pounds ($130,500) per migrant. “Sure, this money would cover the costs for the first five years,” said Ingabire. “But after those five years, who will pay the bill to look after these asylum seekers, when the reality is that our current refugees have not yet been able to find work and integrate into society?”
Rwanda is also one of Africa’s smallest nations and the world’s fifth most densely populated country. President Paul Kagame, who has been in office since 2000, has introduced significant social reforms such as universal healthcare and education. More than half of its lawmakers are women.
According to World Bank figures, economic growth averaged 7.2 percent annually between 2009 and 2019, while GDP grew at 5 percent. The country has also branded itself as a business and tourism hub and has inked sponsorship deals with major football clubs.
Despite this progress, Rwanda remains the world’s 24th poorest country according to the most recent World Economic Outlook report and 21 percent of its youths are unemployed according to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda.
Mohammed Osman has also been disappointed about the deportation plan to Rwanda.
“How can I go to Rwanda? Rwanda is also a poor country,” said the Somali national who fled to the UK after his mother sold a piece of land to help him pay for his journey through Kenya, Turkey and Europe, which took four months to complete. “There are no jobs and everything is very difficult there.”
While he was in Calais, deciding how to cross the English Channel to reach the UK, he never veered far from the tent he shared with a handful of other Somali migrants in a wooded area near the train station. The 32-year-old fled Baidoa leaving behind his wife and three children after repeated threats from the al-Qaeda-linked armed group al-Shabab, which disapproves of his job as a healthcare worker.
‘Respect the choice’
Rwanda has taken in asylum seekers from a third country before. Between 2013 and 2018, Israel offered around 4,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers the choice between indefinite detention or signing transfer papers to a third country and a $3,500 payment. Those who agreed to take the second option were sent to Rwanda,
And while the Israeli government claimed migrants would be guaranteed regular status and employment opportunities, they found it tough to gain asylum or rebuild their lives, so many fled.
Yet Rwanda is proud of being a nation open to receiving foreigners. President Kagame grew up as a refugee when his parents fled to Uganda in the late 1950s. Supporters say his upbringing allows him to value refugees.
“President Kagame is keen to make Rwanda a cosmopolitan society where you have various cultures,” said Gatete Nyiringabo, a Kigali-based lawyer who says criticism of Rwanda is down to Western bias. “Diversity is also a bet of the president and his party to dilute the question of division between the historically divided ethnic groups.”
Some experts believe migration is also a way for Kagame to forge a strong, international image and distract critics for his alleged support of the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile east.
“Kagame accepted the Rwanda asylum plan for two main reasons. First, it creates a positive image of him”, said Ingabire. “Second, by accepting these asylum seekers, he ensures that the UK refrains from condemning Rwanda on certain matters. Notably, in the ongoing conflict with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while other nations have criticized Rwanda for backing the M23, the UK has not done so.”
For months, Altigani, Osman and other migrants were waiting in the UK, afraid that forced asylum in Rwanda would be a crushing setback in their search for safety. But the latest judgment has given them hope, they say.
“I haven’t slept for three nights waiting for today’s announcement,” said Osman. “This decision is good for me and for the other asylum seekers. We are all so relieved! We were terrified of being sent to Rwanda, which has so many problems.”
Kigali’s supporters say the Supreme Court’s decision focused on Rwanda and failed to address another issue. “Why is the UK willing to expel Black and Arab people, and not white?” Nyiringbao said. “The UK is grappling with its racist demons and Rwanda gets thrown in the mix for exposing it for what it is.”
It is unclear what future awaits the refugees.
Prime Minister Sunak has said his government is currently working on a new treaty with Rwanda and will take into account the Supreme Court ruling while finalising the deal. He added he is prepared to “revisit domestic legal frameworks” and “international conventions” if they continue to frustrate immigration policy plans.
However, analysts say the UK and other European countries like Denmark hoping to copy the Rwanda scheme should note the court’s decision and abide by international laws on asylum.
“They should respect the choice of the victims of conflict and mistreatment. Their choices are expressed in their applications,” Bireete said. “So, when you subject them to countries that are not of their choice, such as Rwanda, what happens to their choices and wishes?