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What it was like to be a refugee in Rwanda

OPINION: After Libya, Rwanda felt like freedom – but then the problems started

Anonymous .
21 October 2022, 11.53am

Protesters gather during a High Court challenge of the government's plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, 5 September 2022

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Thomas Krych/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

At the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month, then-home secretary Suella Braverman spoke of her “dream” of overseeing the deportation of asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Today, two days after her resignation, the plan has been dealt a fresh blow, after the airline due to run the deportation flights pulled out amid pressure from campaigners.

Whether the government will persist with its £120m plan – which has already been stalled by legal challenges – remains to be seen, particularly in the wake of the resignation of Liz Truss as prime minister. Earlier this year, during the last Tory party leadership race, Braverman's successor as home secretary, Grant Shapps, told LBC he would “make sure it happens”.

With the plan, and the government, once again in disarray, openDemocracy spoke to one of the more than a thousand refugees to have already been housed in Rwanda since 2019, as part of a UN evacuation scheme for people trapped in Libya.

Here, the man, who wishes to remain anonymous, gives his account of life at Gashora Transit Centre, the Rwandan camp where people are housed on arrival to the country.

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Treated like criminals

On 6 September 2019, I remember being woken up by the scorching heat of the sun, in the prison yard where I slept. I had been detained in Libya for three dismal years, facing atrocious daily hardships. The mornings were always the most miserable times – because I would have to leave behind my dreams, where I was a free man, and come back to reality.

This morning was different, though. A few hours after waking up, I found out that my name was on a list of refugees who would be evacuated to Rwanda. I cried tears of joy at the thought that I would be a self-governing man once again. For the first time, the sunlight felt like rays of liberty.

There were around 200 of us lost souls, out of thousands detained in Libya, who were given the chance to evacuate. It was hard to leave others behind because we had become so used to doing things collectively – gathering together and conferring was the way we protected ourselves.

In October 2019, we were flown to Rwanda and taken to Gashora Transit Centre, an hour and a half’s drive south of Kigali. In Rwanda, the authorities welcomed us respectfully and we felt the trauma of our time in Libya lift. But this feeling lasted only a few weeks, as we became subject to a new regime in the Gashora camp.

Since the majority of us had stayed in several refugee camps on our route to Libya, in Ethiopia and Sudan, we knew they could be subject to corruption. For example, if you are given a prepaid card with which to buy food, some camps reduce the money little by little until eventually you’re not even left with enough to buy bread.

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When we heard that the Rwandan authorities were giving us prepaid cards, we were worried this might happen again – so we held an assembly to discuss our concerns, like we used to do in Libya. The next day, the camp authorities visited us and forbade any future gatherings.

It was then I realised that we were still effectively incarcerated, even though in theory we were free to come and go from the camp.

In fact, I should have already seen this was the case when I noticed the three detention cells placed at the camp’s entrance. These were staffed by security guards, who were placed at the gate to ensure that unauthorised people and products did not enter the camp. After a few months, however, the security guards began to impose new rules.

One night, some friends and I were coming back to the camp after a lovely evening outside. When we reached the entrance a guard stopped us and told us we had to spend the night in the cells because it was after 10pm. I was bewildered – we were sober and behaving quietly – so I asked why we were being detained. Without explanation, they dragged us forcefully into the tiny cages and handcuffed us. They were treating us like criminals.

You can’t criticise the way things are run, and if you try to, you will find that your voice is suppressed

There were other problems too. One of my fellow residents reported being sexually assaulted by a Rwandan police commander. After the incident, we complained to the UNHCR and the senior camp administration. But the camp officials treated us as if we had done something wrong, and singled out residents who they suspected of having talked to journalists about the incident.

Officials would show up to our dormitory every day after lunchtime and question us about who had been speaking to journalists. They told us that if we contacted journalists again we would be expelled from Rwanda.

At the end of 2020, I flew from Rwanda to the EU, where I was offered asylum. From my experience, there is no clear democracy in Rwanda. The land is very clean but the people live in fear because the government keeps them under surveillance. You can’t criticise the way things are run, and if you try to, you will find that your voice is suppressed.

The Rwandan government has previously denied the allegation of sexual assault, and has also said that it treats refugees in the country with “safety, dignity and respect”.

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