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The next hole in UK’s Rwanda asylum plan: Conflict in Congo

LONDON/BUKAVU, Congo — Lawyers aren’t the only obstacle to Boris Johnson’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The U.K. prime minister will soon also have to grapple with the fallout of a dramatically escalating regional conflict that Rwanda is accused of stoking in the east of neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Britain’s first planned flight transporting refugees more than 4,000 miles away to Kigali was ultimately canceled on Tuesday night after an 11th-hour intervention from the European Court of Human Rights. Undeterred by farcical scenes of passengers being pulled from the plane one-by-one in the minutes before take-off was scheduled, Johnson’s government is vowing to press ahead with its highly contentious new migration policy.

Britain’s portrayal of Rwanda as a safe haven to which anyone the U.K. government determines to have entered illegally — like undocumented refugees crossing the English Channel — can be deported to apply for asylum has already run into strong headwinds from critics, who point out the African nation has a dismal record on political and media freedoms.

Those fears about Kigali’s suitability as Britain’s partner are now only being further compounded as Congolese officials and a Nobel laureate accuse Rwanda of being behind an upsurge of violence in eastern Congo that is forcing thousands to leave their homes.

Congo said this week that Rwanda-backed M23 rebels and Rwandan defense forces occupied the Congolese town of Bunagana. Sylvain Ekenge, a Congolese general from North Kivu province, described the attack as “nothing more nor less than an invasion” of Congo.

Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who won a Nobel prize for his work combating sexual violence in conflict zones, said an increasing number of victims were heading to his clinic in eastern Congo and pointed the finger squarely at Kigali. “Rwanda is hoping that everyone will look at the Ukraine war and that it will be left alone here,” he told POLITICO at the Panzi hospital in Bukavu.

Michela Wrong, a journalist and author who has worked extensively in the region, accused both the Rwandan and British governments of “breathtaking” hypocrisy.

“On the one hand you have Rwanda opening its arms to refugees and being relentlessly hyped as a safe haven by [Home Secretary] Priti Patel and [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson; on the other hand you have a rebel group which has always been regarded as a Rwandan proxy going on the attack and sending tens of thousands of villagers fleeing their homes in Congo and Uganda in the space of a few weeks. It’s jaw-dropping,” she said.

Andy Slaughter, a senior parliamentarian in Britain’s opposition Labour Party, condemned the U.K. government for attempting to fly refugees to a third nation and added that deportation to Rwanda “has additional risks given its questionable human rights record and alleged involvement in conflict in the region.”

Rwanda repeatedly denies both accusations linking it to the M23 rebels and that it sends troops into its neighbor’s territory, but international pressure is growing. In comments that were widely viewed as a signal to Rwanda, Belgium, which is a significant diplomatic player in the region because of its colonial history in Congo, last week urged regional countries to take responsibility in the conflict.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told reporters in Kinshasa that Congo, like Ukraine, has the right to defend its border and even went as far as to say Belgium was ready to take up a role in the conflict in eastern Congo.

His comments followed a plea from Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, who said “there can be no development without security” and stressed that Congo must “ensure our national defense and security.” In outrage at what it sees as Rwanda’s involvement, Congo has summoned the Rwandan ambassador and halted flights to Congo by Rwanda’s national airline.

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said the fighting “is an internal Congolese conflict” but accused Congolese groups of shelling Rwandan territory.

“While it would be legitimate for Rwanda to respond to the repetitive attacks … on our territory, Rwanda is not involved in the ongoing fighting in eastern DRC and has no intention of being drawn into an internal matter of the DRC. Rwanda wants to collaborate with neighboring countries for a sustainable solution to insecurity in our region,” she said.

Conservative MP and former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said Rwanda had legitimate self-defense concerns, and argued links between the government and M23 rebels are not as clear now as in the past.

He said it was “generous” of the Rwandans to agree to take in refugees from the U.K., but blasted the British government for going ahead with a plan he insisted would not prevent people-smuggling and would end up being expensive for British taxpayers. 

Britain is paying Rwanda £120 million (€138 million) to act as its partner in its new migration policy, and the main defense of the scheme from the ruling Tory Party is that it will kill the trade of profiteering people smugglers, who charge refugees a fortune to risk a perilous Channel crossing to the U.K. in a small boat.

Under the new U.K. law, migrants who enter Britain illegally or have their asylum applications rejected will be sent to Rwanda from where they can choose to apply for asylum in the east African nation or return to their country of origin. They will be given accommodation while they wait, and if accepted will be allowed to remain for five years, after which they can apply again. There is no path to return to the U.K.

A U.K. government spokesperson said the deal with Rwanda “will see those who make dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys to the U.K. relocated to Rwanda and, if recognized as refugees, they will be supported to build a new life there. Rwanda is a safe and secure country. No one will be relocated if it is unsafe or inappropriate for them.”

A Home Office official called on leaders in the region to increase efforts to pursue dialogue and resolve disputes.

The war between Congo and Rwanda officially ended in the early 2000s, but violence has continued in the east of Congo, leading to thousands of deaths, mostly through disease and malnutrition, and a huge flux of refugees. Conflict minerals in the region have played a major role in the strife.

Undaunted by criticism from human rights groups and church leaders, Johnson insisted to his ministers he would “get on and deliver” the deportation plan.

One man who was due to be deported on the first flight told the BBC he would “prefer to die” than be sent to Rwanda, due to concerns over its human rights record. He said he had been kidnapped and abused by human traffickers on his route to the U.K.

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