The UK’s Rwandan refugee plan is postcolonialism in action

Transporting vulnerable refugees from Britain to East Africa is not just immoral and illegal, but a bigger problem for asylum seekers and Rwanda's people.

Family group standing on a beach

Transporting vulnerable refugees from Britain to East Africa presents a major problem for asylum seekers and Rwanda's people - photo by Eric Masur on Unsplash

The plan to transport vulnerable refugees 4,000 miles from Britain to East Africa is widely acknowledged to be immoral and illegal. It represents one element of a wider, historic injustice, that continually impacts asylum seekers and Rwandan domestic communities alike.

Despite many objections from senior civil servants, politicians of all stripes, civil rights groups, and even the UNHCR and UN Special Rapporteur for Refugees, the UK’s former Home Secretary forged ahead with a ministerial directive allowing for asylum seekers landing in Britain to be deported from UK soil to Rwanda. This was a deal announced to great fanfare by the Governments of both states.

The UK’s decision to ‘off-shore’, or resettle, asylum seekers represents a shocking violation of its commitments under international law.

Sean Madden - Doctoral Researcher, Birmingham Law School

The UK’s decision to ‘off-shore’, or resettle, asylum seekers represents a shocking violation of its commitments under international law. The intent to send vulnerable people to a state from which they have recently and regularly accepted refugees, and about whose human rights record the UK government has expressed its own misgivings, only amplifies accusations of opportunism and hypocrisy. Recent reports of accelerated deportation for desperate hunger strikers lends an extra layer of disgust to an already distasteful affair.

With Rwanda’s economy growing, improved access to electricity, and high levels of exports, it may seem surprising that the country would be so willing to partake in this agreement. The apparent successes equally obscure a deeper dissatisfaction and a coercion rooted in Rwanda’s colonial past. The continuation of a system of international law and finance emergent of colonialism, and which continues to overpower post-colonial states, draws Rwanda into the cycle of extraction, loans, debt, and foreign investment. This renders maintenance of a self-sustaining polity, free from external influence and the confected necessity for support, continually problematic.

This dynamic is fundamental to the rationale behind Rwanda’s acceptance of this deal and to the subordination of human rights to economic growth. It is more widely-indicative of the pressure to accept foreign investment that falls upon all post-colonial states. The recent history of Rwanda has been inevitably shaped by its experience of the colonial encounter. As a land-locked country, with few natural resources, colonial powers were unable to extract value through the exploitation and removal of mineral wealth. Instead, Germany, as the colonial power, employed the country’s land as its predominant means of achieving profitability - introducing several crops, such as coffee and maize, and producing them for export to levy taxes on the population.

In Rwanda, as with many post-colonial states, the result of this burden was the continuation of the prevailing dynamic. The economy remained dependent predominantly on agricultural production and export, benefitting those who owned and controlled land, and former colonial powers of the Global North. Meanwhile, local communities continued to suffer from an inability to adequately survive, leaving levels of impoverishment and malnutrition high.

Centuries of exploitation by European powers, legitimised by international law, left former colonies stripped of resource, bereft of economic and political independence. Self-sustenance under the prevailing conditions and the vicious cycle of suppression was almost impossible; it is the perverse irony of this relationship that Third World states became dependent on financial aid from the dominant global powers whose extractive activity had left them impoverished. The eagerness with which Rwanda has accepted the UK’s refugee deal, and the investment it brings, is completely comprehensible when viewed from this vantage point. However, the drive to globalise Africa has, in the main, furthered the Postcolonial globalist agenda to a far greater degree than it has helped the continent. What can be seen in Rwanda is replicated across post-colonial states, as governments trade rights, resources, and agency for finance, payment towards debt, and economic growth.

For the UK, it is the continuation of a postcolonialism that manipulates and subordinates; coaxes and coerces, according to political convenience, and with scant regard for the lives of those affected. Global powers can manipulate openings for transnational capital insertion into new markets through the exertion of either direct or indirect influence over the democratic process in addition to international law and finance. That they can do so is resultant of an exclusivity of legitimacy, self-imbued under international law, and since the colonial era.

In the case of the UK refugee agreement, it would seem to render significant implications for the ability of the state to adequately support an influx of resettled individuals. The repercussions for refugee resettlement extend beyond the UK’s use of Postcolonial power for political expediency, to real concern for the wellbeing of both Rwandan citizens and any potentially resettled individuals.

The Rwandan government’s authoritarian excesses have deeply concerned international human rights agencies, as accusations of unlawful imprisonment and extra-judicial killings of political opponents abound, and police have been found responsible for the deaths of protestors, including refugees. These events cast more than serious doubt over Rwanda’s ability to safeguard vulnerable refugees, even if the resettlement policy itself were not a violation of international law.

Governments across both the UK and Rwanda stand to gain enormously – the latter in terms of investment and growth, the former through consolidation of anti-migrant rhetoric, fomented to appease their base. As with the colonial relationship, however, it is an agreement only achievable through the exploitation and disempowerment of a lower-ranking majority at the hands of transnational elites supported by international institutions of finance and law notionally concerned with protection of rights and livelihoods.

Meanwhile, as the Rwandan economy grows, citizens continue to live without security and rights, without adequate jobs or payment, and without agency or independence over land, economy, polity, or wealth. GDP may grow, but the Rwandan population, along with some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees, relentlessly and repeatedly pay the price of colonial exploitation, well into the 21st century.

Sean Madden - Doctoral Researcher, Birmingham Law School