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Rwanda Refugee Deal: asylum seekers stuck between torn homelands and the UK’s flimsy arguments

by Redwan Eid

Following Brexit, the UK continues its plans to shut its doors in asylum seekers’ faces, this time under the pretext of their “safety”.

On April 15th, Boris Johnson announced the British government’s recently-signed deal with Rwanda, which dictates that from 2022, asylum seekers who arrived in the UK “illegally” will be sent to Rwanda to process their asylum claims. Mr Johnson defended this deal by claiming concern about the safety of asylum seekers, as the government says it will put an end to the perilous boat journeys to the UK and smugglers’ businesses.

I am a journalist who was once unsafe in his own country because of his career.

I was forced to flee and take this “illegal” route to start a new, safe life on a ray of hope. With all the embassies closed in my country, I made the decision to get onto a boat with many others from Turkey to Greece, even though I could not swim!

I had heard hundreds of stories about boats of asylum seekers capsizing in the sea, ending in unspeakable tragedies where only the luckiest people survived. However, the fear and persecution I was subject to in my home country made life and death alike in my eyes.

If I stayed in Syria, I would be dead by now as a result of my anti-regime views due to the atrocities the government committed against unarmed civilians, children and even babies. In addition to the threat that the regime posed to my life was the emergence of ISIS. This terror group made matters worse as I had raised my voice against extremism and radicalism.

Both factors made every step I took in Syria treacherous, and I could see no light in my near future. For safety, I stayed imprisoned in my home for around three years, not being able to go out further than the neighboring grocery shop.

For someone stuck in a limbo like me, under these living conditions, did I have anything to lose in risking my life at sea? And if I did not do, what would that give me?

Was I supposed to keep my life completely disrupted, unable to work, go outside in the sun, or live a normal life? Did I have anything else to try other than gambling for an end or a fresh start?

When the revolution against the Syrian regime began and the Assad forces started to shell civilians without mercy – breaking all human rights and international laws – the international response was supposed to take a course of action to rescue them.

However, political decision-makers all over the globe pursued a self-distancing policy. At the very least, citizens wished to have a no-fly zone at least somewhere in Syria, which would have massively limited the migration movement.

Despite the number of times the Syrian opposition repeated this request, and political analysts all over the world supported the need for such a zone – warning that denying such a request would lead to large numbers seeking asylum – the international decision-makers failed to act.

Conversely, Syrian survival instinct was stronger than the international silence in the face of the non-stop death toll. As a result, Syrians fled their homeland towards safety and respect of their humanity and dignity.

To where they could start new lives from the ashes and actively contribute to the societies, they live in.

When my colleagues and I stood up to the corruption, human abuse, oppression, extremism and radicalism in Syria, we never thought we were acting individually. Our belief was that we were just doing our part, as citizens in this world.

I thought that from my place in Syria, I was helping to fight fascism in all its forms. In Britain, France, or anywhere else, it did not matter- what mattered to me was how to act correctly. For that profound belief, the price I paid was being assaulted in the street, having my teeth broken, and blackmailed for money.

The realisation now is that the world neither helped us in our movement for freedom and reforms, nor is it willing to give us a safe and respectful shelter until we can return to our home countries to take part in rebuilding it efficiently, is deeply frustrating. It makes one lose faith and hope in humanity and justice.

How do I look to Mr Johnson now? Does my forehead show that I am “an economic immigrant”? How can he decide that asylum seekers in the UK are “economic migrants”, even though the majority of them come from war zones? Is Rwanda, with its notorious record of abusing human rights, safe and secure to someone like me?

In its periodic report published on February 1, 2021, Human Rights Watch said:

During the review, countries across all regions called on Rwanda to end torture and ill-treatment, and investigate cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and deaths in custody. Many countries said that Rwanda should allow journalists and activists to work independently and nongovernmental organizations to register, and protect freedom of expression, including by reforming its media law and the penal code.

The same report continues in another paragraph:

Between 2010 and 2017, Human Rights Watch documented that Rwanda’s military frequently arbitrarily detained and tortured people, beating them, asphyxiating them, using electric shocks, and staging mock executions in military camps around Kigali and in the northwest. Most of the detainees were forcibly disappeared and held incommunicado for months on end in deplorable conditions.

Rwanda’s long record of human rights abuse does not stop at those two paragraphs mentioned above. Other horrible practices were cited in the Human Rights Watch Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of Rwanda.

If the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, who has been in power since 2000, threatened his opponent publically on his official Twitter account, how can Rwanda be safe for humanitarian and political refugees from other countries?

The budget of the pilot scheme is £120m, and yet Mr Johnson still “can’t ask the British taxpayer to write a blank cheque to cover the costs of anyone who might want to come and live here.”

Statistics show that there are 26.4 million refugees forcibly displaced around the world. To take the Syrian case alone, we find that by the end of 2020, Turkey provided safety to 3.7 million Syrian refugees, even though the country’s economic capability is far from comparison to the UK’s.

In return, by the end of February 2021, the UK had resettled 20,319 refugees from Syria under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which included 239 refugees who were resettled before the target of 20,000 being set.

In conclusion, the UK is ranked among the world’s 10 richest countries, but shoulders 1% approximately of the 26.4 million refugees, forcibly displaced across the world. Today, it wants to dispose of that tiny percentage, while it keeps priding itself on its tradition of strong democratic values and remaining committed to promoting universal human rights, just for a nice picture in the media.

Main Photo by Ev on Unsplash