Is Rwanda safe for asylum seekers? UNHCR report highlights gender-based violence and food insecurity

The UNHCR has been highly critical of the government’s approach to the small boat crisis

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The UN refugee agency has said the government’s deportation agreement with Rwanda, which forms a central part of its new plans to tackle small boat crossings, “fails to meet the necessary international standards”.

Rwanda already hosts a significant number of refugees from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwandan President Paul Kagame was criticised recently after he said in a speech that “we cannot keep being host to refugees which later on we are held accountable in some way”.

In a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assessing the situation for DRC refugees, the agency noted that while refugees enjoy “a favourable protection” in Rwanda, they also face significant challenges.

The report notes that Gender-based violence (GBV) remains one of the biggest protection concerns for refugee women and children, while most refugee households report “little to no” access to electric energy and access to water below the humanitarian standard of 20 litres per person per day.

Food inflation is also a major issue in Rwanda, with prices rising 12% between May and June 2022, and 54% between June 2021 and June 2022. This has left around one in three refugee households at the threshold of food insecurity, according to UNHCR.

According to the report: “Although there have been improvements in child protection and prevention, risk mitigation and response to gender-based violence over the past few years, GBV and incidents of violence, abuse and exploitation against children remain a concern and still go underreported among the refugee population. Exposure to sexual exploitation and abuse also poses a significant risk to refugee communities in Rwanda”.

Rishi Sunak met with Rwanda President Paul Kagame earlier this week to discuss the partnership, which has been widely criticised as unworkable and expensive, as well as going against the principles of international law around asylum and refugees.

According to a readout of the call, the pair discussed the UK-Rwanda migration partnership and joint efforts to break the business model of criminal people smugglers and address humanitarian issues.

Human rights organisations have also been raising concerns for some time about the Rwandan government cracking down on opposition parties and figures who openly criticise the government.

Most recently, a host of international organisations have called for a fully transparent investigation into the death of John William Ntwali, a prominent investigative journalist and one of the government’s most high profile critics, who died in a reported motorcycle accident in January.

Rwandan authorities failed to provide details about the circumstances surrounding his death and Ntwali had previously reported being threatened by security forces.

No 10 declined to say whether Sunak raised Ntwali’s case on the recent call.

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The UN refugee agency has also expressed ‘profound concern’ about the government’s new asylum bill, which it says would breach the Refugee Convention.

The UNHCR also described the UK’s deportation scheme agreement with Rwanda as ‘failing to meet international standards,’ and urged MPs and Peers to “pursue more humane and practical policy solutions”.

It comes after the UN agency published a report last month highlighting issues faced by refugees currently in Rwanda, and more than 90 international organisations called for a full and transparent investigation into the death of John Williams Ntwali, a prominent Rwandan journalist who had criticised President Paul Kagame’s regime.

The UNHCR has criticised the government’s new asylum bill, which will ban people who attempt to reach the UK via small boats from claiming asylum once they arrive and mandate their deportation. It described the effect of the policy as todeny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection”.

It said the policy is effectivelyan asylum ban - extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances”.

In a statement, it said:”Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas. There are no safe and “legal” routes available to them. Denying them access to asylum on this basis undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was established. The Convention explicitly recognises that refugees may be compelled to enter a country of asylum irregularly.

“Based on the Home Office’s most recently published data, the vast majority of those arriving to the UK in small boats over the Channel would be accepted as refugees were their claims to be determined. Branding refugees as undeserving based on mode of arrival distorts these fundamental facts.

“International law does not require that refugees claim asylum in the first country they reach. Returns or transfers to safe third countries may nonetheless be appropriate if certain thresholds are met – in particular, if Refugee Convention rights will be respected there, and the arrangement helps share the responsibility for refugees equitably among nations.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: ”The British people rightly expect us to solve this crisis and that’s what the Prime Minister and I fully intend to do. We must stop the boats.

“It is completely unfair that people who travel through a string of safe countries then come to the UK illegally and abuse our asylum laws to avoid removal. It has to stop. By bringing in new laws, I am making it absolutely clear that the only route to the UK is a safe and legal route. If you come here illegally, you won’t be able to claim asylum or build a life here.

“You will not be allowed to stay. You will be returned home if safe, or to a safe third country like Rwanda. It’s the only way to prevent people risking their lives and paying criminals thousands of pounds to get here.”