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Rwanda: Why the UK needs to acknowledge its role in displacing people

Today is World Refugee Day. War and climate change, both fuelled by the West, force millions to flee their homes

Sally Hayden
20 June 2022, 10.10am

Protest in London against the deportation flight to Rwanda


Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy Live News

“There are good people out there,” messaged an Eritrean refugee I know, after I told him about the scenes in the UK last Tuesday. Activists had laid on the street, blocking a road outside a detention centre where some of the asylum seekers due to be sent to Rwanda were being held. Protesters had also gathered outside the Home Office and the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

My contact has personal experience of Rwanda. He was sent there as part of an EU-funded evacuation scheme after he tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, was intercepted by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard and spent years locked up in war-torn Libya.

Since 2019, Rwanda has been used as a transit country for Libya’s evacuees, in a deal signed by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and the African Union. Hundreds of people have spent time there before being moved on to new lives in North America or Europe.

I visited Rwanda twice – in 2019 and 2020 – to report on refugee-related issues. Officials said I was only granted accreditation because they believed I would write positive things. Even then, I was not allowed to access the camp I wanted to visit. It became clear quite quickly that Rwanda is a police state – a dictatorship where proper scrutiny is not possible.

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“Rwanda is a poor country, it's like survival of the fittest to them. They would also host dinosaurs if they offered money,” my Eritrean contact said, who spent about a year there.

Turning his attention to the West, he added: “I would say what goes around comes around […] All the flow of refugees is because of their mess they [created] back in Africa and the Middle East.”

The wrong kind of ‘shared history’?

The concept of ‘shared history’ has been invoked frequently as a reason why European countries are willing to be more open to refugees from Ukraine than to people coming from other regions.

But Britain has a shared history with much of the rest of the world too. Around 30% of Africans were at one point living in British colonies and many of the repressive systems or exploitative structures that still exist now can be traced back to the colonial era.

This shared history extends beyond Africa, of course, and is not restricted to previous centuries.

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As many as half a million Iraqis died in the eight years after the US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003, and one in 25 were reportedly displaced from their homes. (Tuesday’s deportation flight to Rwanda was cancelled at the last minute because the European Court of Human Rights granted an injunction to the lawyers of a 54-year-old Iraqi man, one of the asylum seekers due to be on the flight.)

Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban last summer after 20 years of military operations by the UK and others, during which tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Now, more than 2.6 million Afghan refugees are registered abroad and another 3.5 million are internally displaced. This year, 1.1 million Afghan children under the age of five will likely suffer severe acute malnutrition, says the UN.

In Sudan, an activist contact told me he saw the logo of a British company on his prison cell during the final years of dictator Omar al-Bashir’s rule. The UK licensed at least £6.5bn worth of arms between 2015 and 2020 to the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade. And these are just a few examples.

Effects of the climate crisis

Climate change is already displacing people, and it is being fuelled by rich countries, which account for the vast majority of global carbon emissions. The average British person emits the same amount of carbon in nine days as a Ugandan, Ethiopian or Malawian does in a year.

Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population, but accounts for only 4% of emissions. Yet its countries and people are already some of the worst affected.

The average British person emits the same amount of carbon in nine days as a Ugandan, Ethiopian or Malawian does in a year

The latest IPCC report said that around 250 million people may experience “high water stress” by 2030, with up to 700 million displaced as a result. Flooding alone is expected to displace an average of 2.7 million people each year in Sub-Saharan Africa. Changing rainfall and warming temperatures are also likely to increase the prevalence of diseases such as malaria, exposing more than 50 million extra people to it by the 2030s, the report says.

A 2019 study found that by 2070 one in three people could be living outside the temperature range in which humanity has survived for thousands of years – unless they move. According to academics studying climate change, for each degree of global warming, one billion people are displaced.

In addition, we have a growing inequality crisis across the world. The gaps between rich and poor are increasing. The situation for the most vulnerable has been worsened by both the coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine war, which has caused food and fuel prices to shoot up.

Those stresses can also lead to greater conflict and persecution: in drought-affected Somalia, for example (where I was in April), displaced people told me that the Islamic militant group Al Shabaab had increased their levels of forced recruitment while terrorising locals to keep them away from the still-functioning water points. Fleeing the fall-out caused by fighting over resources displaces people too.

More say for refugees

Today, Monday 20 June, marks World Refugee Day. Right now, 83% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, according to the UN. Some refugee-led organisations are using this day as a chance to argue that refugees should have more say in finding solutions.

It has been more than 70 years since someone with lived experience of forced displacement has served as UN high commissioner of refugees, points out organisation R-SEAT (Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table). "The first high commissioner was a refugee, why not the next?” they are asking.

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