Inside the Rwandan center that will house UK deportees: ‘Come as a guest, leave as a friend’

The Hope Hostel in Kigali, operational through British funding, has been empty for two years and is now preparing to receive the asylum seekers London plans to expel despite criticism of the Rwandan regime by human rights organizations

Ismaël Bakina
Ismaël Bakina, manager of the Hope Hostel, in March showed EL PAÍS the facilities in Kigali where asylum seekers deported from the United Kingdom will be housed.Joost Bastmeijer

At Hope Hostel, all 50 double rooms are cleaned daily. A pair of slippers, toiletries, and the Quran on the bedside table — it’s all ready. But this hotel, built in an affluent suburb of the Rwandan capital Kigali overlooking the city, has never had a customer in its two years of existence. “We are 100% operational,” says the manager, Ismaël Bakina, contently during a tour. “We have pool tables, a sports center, computer rooms. And there is Wi-Fi everywhere.” Upon entering, on the wall behind a bored receptionist, a world clock displays the time in London.

In the British capital, parliament approved a controversial law Tuesday that would allow asylum seekers who have come illegally to the United Kingdom to be sent to Rwanda. The lighter their claim for asylum, the greater the chance that the refugees (initially mainly solo-travelling males) will be deported to Rwanda.

With the pact concluded — it was renegotiated in December after the Supreme Court ruled the policy of deportations was unlawful — the U.K. intends to deter would-be migrants. The Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has pledged to put an end to boats carrying migrants crossing the Channel illegally from France. Since 2018, almost 120,000 people have crossed to the U.K. via that route.

Hope Hostel is Rwanda’s first “transit center,” with capacity for 100 people. If there are more deportations, the Rwandan government will build other similar centers. Maintenance of the site has been covered with British funds for years, through a €433 million ($462.7 million) agreement signed by the two countries in 2022, part of which has already been transferred by the U.K. After deportation, the migrants and refugees enter the Rwandan asylum system, making them eligible to live and work in Rwanda. If they prefer to leave the country, they are also free to do so.

Human rights activists and members of the opposition accuse the repressive regime of Rwandan President Paul Kagame of human rights violations and consider that the migration agreement with the U.K. is simply a way to whitewash the reputation of the head of state and his government. Kagame has been in power since 2000, following the genocide of the Tutsi population 30 years ago, and anyone who openly criticizes the regime risks prosecution.

At the entrance to Hope Hostel hangs a banner reading: “Come as a guest, leave as a friend.” The fact that no “guests” have yet arrived does not bother Bakina. “I’m a businessman,” he says with a grin as he smooths a crease out of his red and grey jacket. “We do what is asked of us. If the British decide to put our guests on a plane today, we will be ready for their arrival,” he told this reporter in mid-March during a tour of the premises.

Before Hope Hostel opened its doors, the building was known as the Association of Student Survivors of Genocide (AERG) hostel. It was a facility built to provide safe accommodation to between 150 and 190 young people orphaned in the 1994 genocide, when up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The residents still residing there were told they would be rehoused to make room for the asylum seekers from the U.K.

Rwanda, a safe country?

Impoverished Rwanda can use the injection of funds included in the deal with the U.K. “Our ambitions to develop our country are great, but our resources are limited,” says Yolande Makolo, spokesperson for the Rwandan government, in her office full of art and dark wooden furniture. Part of the money is designated for national development, for example to improve education. “We will provide a capital injection to the schools where refugee children go,” says Makolo, “so that both they and Rwandans are better off.”

In December 2023, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda cannot be considered a safe country. The ruling was based on information gathered by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which states that “to this day, serious human rights abuses continue to occur in Rwanda, including repression of free speech, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture by Rwandan authorities.” Amnesty International is also critical of the ‘disgraceful Rwanda scheme’. Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty’s U.K. chief, said that ‘the deal with Rwanda — a country with a track record of serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture and the repression of free speech — was massively ill-conceived and cruel.”

In recent weeks the British House of Lords has also been studying the security situation in Rwanda. The Lords sent their amendments to the bill to the House of Commons, which proceeded to send them back without taking them into consideration, in what is known as “parliamentary ping-pong.” Hours before parliament finally gave the green light to the bill, Sunak announced: “The first flight will leave in 10 to 12 weeks. Now of course that is later than we wanted. But we have always been clear that processing will take time.”

On April 15, leaked British government documents revealed that “more than 30,000″ asylum seekers are expected to be deported to Rwanda over the next five years. However, in the first year several dozen to hundreds of deportations are forecast. In March, at the request of parliament, the British audit office calculated that the British government — in addition to the €433 million — will pay more than €175,000 ($187,000) per “relocated individual” to cover costs such as housing, food, and education. The compensation will be paid in stages through the Rwandan government over a period of five years, provided the deportee remains in Rwanda. If he or she decides to leave, for example to return to their home country, the payments will be stopped. In these cases, €11,000 ($11,760) will be paid out “to facilitate voluntary departure.”

In recent years, the U.K. has sent several legal experts and employees of the British immigration service to Rwanda to help the government set up asylum and immigration procedures. Refugees can apply for asylum in Rwanda at transit centers such as Hope Hostel. If they do not, they can go through an alternative procedure after which they can become Rwandan residents or citizens.

Makolo expects that the asylum or immigration procedure at Hope Hostel will take “two to three months.” The deportees are then assigned a house. According to Makolo, they will be welcomed with open arms by “hospitable Rwandans.” “We understand what it is like to have to flee,” she said in reference to the genocide that took place 30 years ago. At least two million Rwandans fled the country.

“We do not consider living in Rwanda as a punishment”

The British were inspired to do business with Rwanda in 2021 because Kigali had previously shown its willingness to receive refugees and migrants from the Libyan Civil War. After images spread around the world of migrants in Libya being abused, tortured, and sold into slavery, in 2018 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called on countries to help evacuate the stranded migrants. The first flights arrived in Rwanda in 2019.

Since then, more than 2,000 refugees have arrived in Rwanda, where they will be relocated to a safe country through the UNHCR. They are housed just outside the village of Gashora, 40 miles south of Kigali. In a large fenced complex, wedged between two lakes, up to 700 refugees await their asylum applications for Europe, Canada, or the United States. The “emergency transit center” is financed by the European Union, which has so far made €34.5 million ($36.87 million) available.

Refugees with families stay in small bungalows among pine trees. In one of the houses is Abdulfattah Ahmed, from Somaliland. His eldest daughter, dressed in a pink Barbie shirt, sits on the coffee table next to the couch while she watches TikTok videos on her phone. Ahmed and his wife, Jamah, left Somaliland in 2019 after their families rejected and attacked them; both belong to different ethnic groups, leading the families to decide their relationship should end.

After a grueling journey, the couple were tortured and raped in a detention center upon arrival in Libya. They managed to escape and reach the capital, Tripoli. Europe was within reach, but Jamah became pregnant. Doubts set in. “We thought: are we really getting on a rickety boat to Europe with a baby?” says Ahmed. Not long after, they had two more daughters, twins. A friend urged them to consider an alternative: those who qualify for refugee status in Europe can await their asylum application in Rwanda.

Ahmed and his wife soon heard that they had a good chance of asylum status in Europe. They registered with UNHCR, which brought the family to Gashora last November. Like the other refugees here, Ahmed was invited to stay in Rwanda. “My girls are safe here,” he says gratefully, his hand gently running through his daughter’s hair. Yet staying in Rwanda permanently is not an option for Ahmed. “I want to go to Europe.”

In Gashora, that sentiment is widely shared. “No refugee has chosen life in Rwanda so far,” says Dhananjaya Bhattarai of UNHCR, who explains that only refugees who have a chance of refugee status in a Western country are brought to Rwanda. Of the 2,095 refugees who came from Libya, 1,569 were resettled. The rest are staying in the center in Gashora while awaiting their asylum approval.

Bhattarai’s high-ranking Geneva-based colleagues are critical of the “Rwanda deal,” which is different from the migration deal that UNHCR reached with the Rwandan government. According to UNHCR, the plan breaches the U.K.’s obligation to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which establishes international protection. It requires that asylum seekers be protected in the country they arrive in, and not forcibly sent to “unsafe areas” such as Rwanda.

This criticism does not sit well with Makolo. “UNHCR’s response is hypocritical,” she says. “They demonize us, while we have been working well together in Gashora for years.” According to Makolo, UNHCR has never expressed any concerns about human rights to the Rwandan government. “We know that the migration deal is being used as a deterrent by the British,” she says. “But we do what we can to receive people with dignity and give them a chance. Asylum seekers look for safety, we have it here.” Makolo describes UNHCR’s words as racist. “We do not consider living in Rwanda as a punishment.”

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