On April 14, 2022, the Home Secretary for the United Kingdom, Priti Patel, alongside Rwandan foreign Minister, Vincent Biruta, announced an agreement between the two nations unlike anything before. The agreement contains a controversial arrangement that will see UK-bound refugees and migrants being transferred to Rwanda while their claims for refugee status are reviewed. Rwanda will not only house these refugees but will also provide them opportunities for education and jobs, access to health care facilities and security from harm. While there are official claims that refugees are not simply being deposited and forgotten in Rwanda, Minister Biruta’s comments illustrate an underlying goal of permanent settlement for the refugees. For this great undertaking, Rwanda’s government will receive an estimated £120 million. Much of this money will be for the refugees and migrants but it will also be used by the Rwandan government to help fund other social programs. Many human rights organisations such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch have condemned the agreement. Even within Rwanda, there has been some opposition to the deal. The announcement has Rwanda becoming a new target of anger towards UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
There is a major question missing in much of the news media coverage within the United Kingdom and the Global North: why is Rwanda doing this? Why is a small African state taking in refugees and migrants from another country thousands of miles away?
For those unaware, Rwanda is a small African nation, roughly the size of Belgium, in the African Great Lakes region with over 12 million people. Its GDP is roughly USD 10.33 billion with a GDP per capita of just under US$800. The landlocked nation is best known for its horrific genocide, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, which witnessed an estimated 1 million Tutsis and non-extremists Hutus killed within a 100-day period. Despite the presence of an international peacekeeping force, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), the mass killings only stopped when the Uganda-based rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), overthrew the genocide government. The RPF has remained in power since the genocidal killings, which it commemorates during Kwibuka ceremonies. The country has been praised for its market-oriented economic policies which experienced impressive economic growth.
1.) The Importance of History:
Many Rwandans’, at least on social media, reactions within the first hours of the refugee agreement were positive. The issue of migration and refugee identity is important to many who were at one point or another, refugees. Starting from the 1959 Hutu Revolution, many Rwandan Tutsis and some Hutus were forced to flee their homes into neighbouring nations. Countries such as Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi experienced waves of Rwandan immigrants fleeing pogroms, government institutionalised racist restrictions and threats to their lives. Despite this initial wave of refugees, there would be several other migration waves. Even after the 1994 genocide, Rwandans, mostly Hutus who feared retaliation for the genocide, fled to neighbouring Zaire only to be repatriated during the First Congo War (1996-1997). It is difficult to travel to Rwanda and find someone who has never been or known personally a former refugee.
Nevertheless, the attention of this article is on the first wave of refugees who travelled to Uganda as they compose much of the post-genocide Rwandan government. The previously mentioned RPF were largely, but not exclusively, composed of these refugees. Once the genocide ended, hundreds of thousands, if not one million, returned to help rebuild Rwanda. While the RPF has been in power since 1994, many of these former refugees hold important government and economic positions. Rwanda’s previous experience with migration influences not only many Rwandans but also policymakers. This has led to a relatively positive belief that refugees should be welcomed and supported as a way to correct past wrongs. A similar response can be seen in Rwanda’s peacekeeping. Rwanda’s military and police are significant contributors to global peacekeeping missions around the world based on historical experiences of UNAMIR’s failures to prevent and stop Rwanda’s genocide. (I will address this topic a bit more later on.) Nevertheless, many Rwandans are more inclined to welcome these refugees and migrants because of their past refugee experiences.
Found within Rwanda’s pre-colonial period are societal beliefs that trickle into much of Rwandan life and policy. One of these beliefs is the agaciro, which can loosely be understood as an indigenous version of Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic combined with terms of self-reliance and dignity. While the term has often focused on economic issues, I have applied it to the concept of Rwandan foreign relations. I argue that the concept is paramount in understanding why the Rwandan government desires to reduce foreign aid reliance on donors, relying on other nations for security and as a tool to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). However, the term should be used to explain why Rwanda and its government would agree to take in UK-bound refugees and migrants.
The Rwandan government wishes to reconstruct the national identity away from the previous regimes’ use of ethnic divisionism among Hutu, Tutsi and Twa to formulate a new one of ethnic and national unity of Ndi Umunyarwanda meaning ‘I am Rwandan’. Utilising the agaciro belief, the Rwandan government is attempting to instil a greater sense of national pride as a humanitarian rescuer for mistreated migrants. This is not only found in the nation’s peacekeeping efforts, but it also has an audience with a Rwandan population that has experienced being a refugee. This greatly fosters the concept of the caring Rwandan taking in suffering people. It also illustrates how Rwanda is proactively trying to benefit others by accepting these refugees rather than ignoring their plight. More importantly, Rwandans will see this agreement as a form of foreign praise by the UK government recognising Rwanda’s previous work assisting refugees from Burundi and the DRC. Overall, the agreement boost national pride as it will be described as fulfilling the agaciro belief.
3.) £120 Million is a lot of Money:
While much of the Global North faces the economic consequences of the Covid-19 virus, the virus’ consequences on the Global South are often ignored. The pandemic greatly harmed Rwanda’s tourism sector which composes a majority of foreign income and a large section of the overall economy. While we will not know the true economic effects of Covid-19 for some years, the nation’s economic growth was seriously impacted. Before the pandemic, Rwanda’s economy was annually growing at around 9 per cent. In 2020, the economy retracted by over 3 per cent. The microeconomic consequences impacted most, if not all, Rwandans. The promised £120 million provides great budgetary support that will benefit beyond the refugees.
In terms of how the money will be spent, the two leaders stated how the funding will also be for, “the UK’s upfront investment of £120 million will fund opportunities for Rwandans and migrants including secondary qualifications, vocational and skills training, language lessons, and higher education.” It is important to note that while much of the money will be spent on the incoming refugees and migrants, there will be excesses that will benefit Rwandans. This includes the economic productivity of these migrants, whether they create new opportunities and settle or those who will just spend their UK-provided financial resources residing in Rwanda. For Rwandans, these migrants might fall within what the Economist Milton Friedman described as the economic benefits for society spanned by increased immigration.
4.) The Foreign Policy advantage:
Much of the literature on Rwanda’s foreign policy is constrained by the genocide guilt card narrative. The narrative reduces much of Rwanda’s foreign policy as the government utilises the guilt of the international community’s inactions to prevent or stop the genocide for national gain. This often is done when deflecting domestic or regional human rights violations. While the theory has declined in recent years, it nevertheless still resides as a catch-all to describe how the Rwandan government perceives and engages with the international community. I argue within my research how the guilt card narrative is not only problematic but intentionally or unintentionally ignores the beliefs and perceptions of Rwandan policymakers.
While the guilt card narrative has declined in its usage, aspects of it can still be found. In 2010, former Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo threatened the removal of Rwandan peacekeepers in response to UN reports criticising Rwanda for interfering in the neighbouring DRC. The threat to remove the much needed Rwandan peacekeepers was akin to the guilt card as it relied on the emotions (guilt and desire not to send soldiers from the Global North) of international actors for political gain. Not surprising, many Rwandan policy leaders expressed to me their support for continued Rwandan contribution to regional and global peacekeeping regardless if they felt undue international criticism. Nevertheless, peacekeeping seems to have become a political mechanism within the nation’s foreign relations.
The new UK-Rwandan refugee agreement could become a new tool within the toolbox of Rwandan foreign policy. It should not come as anyone’s surprise if the Rwandan government brings up the migrant deal as a way to deflect criticism when the UK criticises the Rwandan government’s handling of domestic issues in the future. Despite any and all good-hearted reasons, Rwanda is accepting UK-bound refugees and migrants because Prime Minister Johnson and his government promised to reduce immigration in the United Kingdom. This is huge political leverage that will benefit Rwanda’s positioning when dealing with the UK in the future.
The UK-Rwandan agreement on migrants and refugees is a huge announcement in a world in which xenophobia has greatly increased. While criticism of the agreement is justified, the focus should be on their political leaders rather than Rwanda. Home Secretary Patel has claimed this decision was based on her desire to reform UK immigration laws and combat human traffickers but there has been significant pushback. Oppositional groups as well as religious and human rights leaders have largely condemned the deal and dragged Rwanda into the British political divide. Often missing within these narratives and examinations is why Rwanda would accept these refugees. For Rwanda’s government, the agreement not only benefits the economy but also promotes the agaciro belief. It also provides a new policy tool for the Rwandan government when engaging with the international community.