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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have thought a trip to Kigali last week for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) would give him a nice break from home politics. But he was soon feeling hot, hot, hot when journalists besieged him with questions about his failing leadership, and the UK-Rwanda deportation plan which has been widely condemned as inhumane and illegal – not least by the Queen’s son.

Prince Charles allegedly called the plan “appalling” in private remarks that were leaked. This was a bombshell, coming on the eve of CHOGM, attended by both Johnson and the heir to the British throne. This leak dominated the news bulletins for days, as people speculated about what Charles (who chaired CHOGM, standing in for the ageing Queen) actually thinks. “Royals shouldn’t stick their noses into politics” was the riposte on the right.

If the Rwandan government thought this issue would not come up at CHOGM, they were sorely mistaken. Writer Michela Wrong, no friend of President Paul Kagame, threw oil on the flames as the meeting opened, publishing a story headed “Rwanda is a brutal repressive regime. Holding the Commonwealth summit there is a sham” Wrong is best known in Kenya for her 2010 best seller It’s Our Turn to Eat, a portrait of whistle-blower John Githongo (publisher of The Elephant) and the corruption he investigated.

Johnson was hoping to flag up trade and collaboration with Rwanda and across the Commonwealth, but was immediately hit by questions about the deportation plan. He retorted, without naming Prince Charles, “Critics need to keep an open mind about the policy. A lot of people can see its obvious merits.”

Convened under the theme of Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming, President Kagame had hoped the meeting would be an opportunity for him to showcase his country’s transformation following a devastating genocide 27 years ago that left Rwanda on the brink. Instead, the meeting threatened to become overshadowed by questions over the morality, appropriateness and legality of his government’s association with Mr Johnson’s Rwanda asylum plan.

Questions were asked of Kagame, particularly around his government’s appalling human rights record and role in the destabilisation of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo where a resurgent M23 rebel movement is reported to be a Rwandan proxy.

As expected, Kagame was not prepared to let anything take away from the fact that Rwanda, a former French colony that only joined the grouping in 2009, had just become the first African country to host CHOGM since Uganda in 2007.

“There is nobody that is in prison in Rwanda that should not be there,” he said at the press conference. “Actually there are people who are not in prison who should be there.” This was widely taken to be a reference to opposition critic Victoire Ingabire who, having been sentenced to 15 years in jail for “belittling the genocide and spreading rumours intended to incite people to revolt”, was subsequently pardoned by Kagame in 2018. She remains in Rwanda, unable to leave the country as her passport has been confiscated.

It has been reported that part of the agreement in relation to the Rwanda asylum plan with Britain includes a request from Rwanda for suspected genocide fugitives currently resident in Britain to be extradited to the East African nation.

Rwanda denies its wilful association with Johnson’s controversial policy—halted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) pending a judicial review in July—is motivated by money. Kigali is set to receive £120 million as a down payment for housing asylum seekers, although this has been earmarked for “economic development” rather than for meeting the deportees’ accommodation and other living costs. (Some reports say this has have already been paid.) No further details have been provided as to how much the policy will cost per asylum seeker, although estimates have put the figure at up to £30,000 per head. Our request to the Home Office for this and other information has yet to be responded to.

In the first sign yet that the scrutiny and attention associated with this policy is perhaps beginning to take a toll on Kagame, a man not renowned for his patience especially where criticism is involved, he went on the offensive. “We try to do our best to give them a sense of security and normalcy,” he said. “If they don’t come, we won’t complain. It’s not like we are dying to have people come to us in this manner.”

Kigali is set to receive £120 million as a down payment for housing asylum seekers, although this has been earmarked for “economic development”.

In a communiqué published after the week-long meeting, an expanded Commonwealth (Gabon and Togo, two other former French colonies, have both been admitted), said it acknowledges that conflicts and crises affect migration patterns. In acknowledging that irregular migration, including when driven by conflict, creates significant challenges, the heads of state agreed that a capacity-centred approach to migration partnerships would best serve common goals. They emphasised the need for international cooperation to facilitate safe, orderly, and regular migration, including through the implementation of relevant international frameworks.

Built on Britain’s association with its colonial past, the Commonwealth has always proclaimed to be united by shared democratic values, good governance and the rule of law, respect for international human rights, gender equality and sustainable economic and social development. Given these values, one would have thought that, as the CHOGM host for 2022, Rwanda would have distanced herself from an inhumane, inherently racist, and probably illegal migrant policy by Britain.

Charges of racism 

In the topsy-turvy world of Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel, criticism of the Rwanda deportation plan is “racist” towards Rwanda, since some of it suggests that Rwanda is an awful place to live. But forcibly flying non-white asylum seekers halfway across the world on one-way tickets is not racist.

In her world, this plan will “smash the business model of people smuggling gangs”. But it does not target the people smugglers; it criminalizes their victims.

With her trademark smirk in overdrive, Patel has hit out at human rights lawyers who successfully argued that migrants earmarked for deportation include victims of modern slavery, a defence that stood up in court. This, together with other legal arguments and a last-minute injunction by the ECHR, prevented the first deportation flight from taking off on 14 June. Priti “Furious” Patel then vowed to change the law to remove this loophole—and pledged to cut Britain’s ties with the ECHR. The government has since unveiled a major overhaul of the human rights laws, which will entail abolishing the existing Human Rights Act and give parliament the power to overrule ECHR judgements. However, Britain will remain a party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International UK, said, “It’s very troubling that the UK government is prepared to damage respect for the authority of the European Court of Human Rights because of a single decision it doesn’t like. This is not about tinkering with rights, it’s about removing them.”

Donning his “breath-taking hypocrisy” hat, Prime Minister Boris Johnson regularly proclaims that Britain is a moral beacon for the rest of the globe. But British church leaders have strongly condemned the deportation plan as immoral and un-Christian.

The government has since unveiled a major overhaul of the human rights laws, which will entail abolishing the existing Human Rights Act.

We wrote about this earlier. To briefly recap, in a bid to solve the UK’s immigration crisis, and in particular deter cross-Channel migrants and asylum seekers who arrive by dinghy (more than 28,500 in the past year, treble the number for 2020), the British government announced a deal with Rwanda to deport migrants there for asylum processing. Even if their appeal were successful, the migrants would not be able to return to Britain. The option would be to stay in Rwanda, or be deported again, either to their home countries or to some other destination. All this is pretty rich coming from Patel, herself the daughter of Ugandan-Asian immigrants who arrived in Britain in the 1960s.

In our earlier story, we drew parallels with colonial-era deportations within East Africa and from Britain to Australia.

Political distraction

The controversial scheme is widely seen as an attempt by Johnson’s Tory government to distract from its many domestic woes. These include a recent no-confidence vote in his leadership (41 per cent of Tory MPs voted to oust him), two important defeats in by-elections that prompted the resignation of the party chairman, the “Partygate” scandal which saw the Prime Minister and close aides fined by police for holding parties at No. 10 during COVID lockdown, train strikes that have brought the country to a standstill, and a cost of living crisis. The Rwanda plan is cheap clickbait for right-wing Brexit voters, furious at the Tories’ failure to curb cross-Channel migration. It triggered comments like the following one online after Patel’s outburst at “racist” critics: “It’s a bit racist to make some of the statements some people make about Rwanda. If a black man enters my house illegally is it racist to call the police?” (A reader’s comment in the Daily Telegraph, 20 June).

The Rwanda plan is cheap clickbait for right-wing Brexit voters, furious at the Tories’ failure to curb cross-Channel migration.

In stark contrast to the way Britain proposes to deal with Channel migrants, it is simultaneously welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms. This has led to a binary narrative in public discourse—legal refugees who happen to be white and Judeo-Christian, versus “illegals” who are mostly not. In fact, there is nothing illegal about seeking and claiming asylum. Many of the placements of Ukrainians in British homes are not going well, according to one contact who is volunteering to coordinate the reception scheme in one county. Host families are angrily complaining that the refugees are “rude and ungrateful”, and are ending the agreements they made only a few weeks ago, leaving some vulnerable Ukrainians homeless. She believes many hosts signed up to house refugees for the wrong reasons. “People are boasting online about getting a refugee, saying ‘I’ve got one! I’ve got one!’ I want to say, ‘They’re not pets!’”