Good news for hotels in Kigali

With the pink paint on its walls fading, Hotel Rouge by Desir is about a 10-minute drive from the center of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

The six-story hotel has 72 rooms with views of the hilly city. It is located in a residential area with a mix of self-contained homes and businesses – and will be one of the places in town where Rwanda plans to house asylum seekers sent by the UK as part of a controversial agreement between the two governments.

Operations Manager Jackie Uwamungu happily shows me around.

“We have VIP, silver, double and twin rooms, a swimming pool and a conference room,” she said as we walked up the stairs.

The rooms are basic with a bed, a movable wardrobe, a desk and chairs and a small television fixed to the wall.

The hotel is still taking reservations, but we notice that there are very few guests.

Business is just recovering from the long disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Uwamungu said.

The agreement on migrants is therefore a welcome relief.

“Oh, it’s going to boost our business, honestly,” she admits.

But not all Rwandans are enthusiastic about the deal

Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, an opposition politician and former political prisoner, said that before offering to take in asylum seekers, the Rwandan government should focus on addressing the political and social issues that drive Rwandans to seek refuge abroad.

Opposition politician Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza spent eight years in prison in Rwanda

The Rwandan government has a reputation for being repressive in human rights circles – and has previously been accused of sending commandos to kill dissidents in exile and demanding loyalty from Rwandans in the diaspora.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended his government’s plan to send asylum seekers to the East African country.

“Rwanda has totally transformed over the past decades, it’s a very, very different country than it used to be,” he said recently, although most of the criticism is aimed at the president’s government. Paul Kagame, in power since 1994.

Although it is unclear how many asylum seekers the UK plans to send, Rwanda has also identified 102 rooms at the Hallmark residence in Kigali’s Nyarugunga suburb.

There are 30 furnished three- and four-bedroom bungalows, with their own gates and gardens.

Bungalow

Rwandan government announces that asylum seekers will be accommodated in bungalows

Chief executive Nina Gatesi admits she doesn’t know much about the migrant deal and that the facility has not yet signed any deal with the Rwandan government. But she says the residence is keen to provide accommodation.

Other migrants will be accommodated at the more basic Hope Hostel, currently under renovation.

The agreement signed by the UK and Rwanda governments for the ‘Asylum Partnership Agreement’ states that the agreement will last for five years from when it takes effect and can be renewed in the fourth year – although rights groups have pledged to mount a legal challenge against it in the UK to thwart its implementation.

Asked what’s in it for Rwanda, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo replied, “Well, what does that mean to all of us who are signatories to the Convention on refugees? We are committed to protecting people who are fleeing persecution and who have done so in our recent history, for almost 30 years now.”

The British government has said it will “invest £120 million ($150 million) in Rwanda’s economic development and growth” and fund “asylum, accommodation and integration operations similar to the costs incurred in the UK for such services”.

The agreement is described by the two governments as a “partnership for migration and economic development”.

Priti Patel watches Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta during a press conference

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel traveled to Rwanda to sign the deal

It may be a public relations victory for the East African country, but serious concerns continue to be raised about its human rights record.

Campaign group Human Rights Watch has accused the UK government of “ignoring abuses” to justify a “cruel” asylum policy.

Its director for Central Africa, Lewis Mudge, criticized the UK’s security assessment for Rwanda as “selecting facts, or ignoring them altogether, to reinforce an abandoned conclusion”.

Mr Mudge said Rwandan authorities used excessive force during protests over food rations for refugees from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo in February and March 2018, killing 12 people and arresting 60.

He also said that at least 35 refugees had been sentenced to terms ranging from three months to 15 years in prison between October 2018 and September 2019.

In one case, Mr. Mudge added, a refugee was charged with sharing information with Human Rights Watch and is currently serving a 15-year sentence.

The Rwandan government disputed the allegations and accused Human Rights Watch of having a record of publishing false allegations and fabrications.

Ms Makolo said Rwanda “does as well as any other country” on human rights.

It’s “a work in progress, even in the UK itself [and in the] most advanced countries,” she says, adding that refugees who identify as LGBTQ would be “as free as anyone else” in Rwanda.

In its Rwanda travel advisory, the UK government says homosexuality is not illegal in the country but “remains frowned upon by many”.

“LGBT people can face discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities. There are no specific anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT people,” he adds.

Asked whether reaching the deal allowed the UK government to abdicate its responsibility for refugees under international law, Ms Makolo said the Refugee Convention does not say “that they have the absolute right to choose the country to which they go”.

“So we see this as a joint responsibility. Rwanda wants to be part of the solution,” she adds.

Rwanda will process migrants’ asylum claims and “settle or deport” them in accordance with Rwandan law, the Refugee Convention and international laws, according to the agreement.

Denmark is also in talks with Rwanda to strike a similar deal.

A separate migrant deal that has seen hundreds of asylum seekers transferred from Libya to Rwanda is run by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

They are staying at Gashora, a camp about 60 km south of the capital.

Nearly 1,000 people, mostly from the Horn of Africa, have been displaced there since 2019.

According to the authorities, 626 people have been resettled in third countries, mainly Canada, Sweden, Norway, France and Belgium.

At least five refugees from the camp I spoke with laughed when asked if they would like to settle in any African country, including Rwanda.

Many endured torture, starvation, extortion by human traffickers, slavery, and survived harsh desert conditions or attempts to cross the Mediterranean.

While they all said Rwanda was a safer and friendlier place to stay, their resolve to eventually live in Europe or North America is far from wavering.

No migrant has ever requested asylum in Rwanda.

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