Gerald and his boyfriend fled Rwanda in February this year to escape persecution from their families and church. “They beat us, starved us and refused to give us shelter,” he told openDemocracy from neighbouring Uganda.
His testimony comes after the UK government announced new proposals to resettle asylum seekers in Rwanda.
The £120m scheme, paid for by the British taxpayer, will mostly target single men arriving on boats or lorries. Prime minister Boris Johnson called the plan “humane and compassionate” and said it would put an end to the businesses of “vile people smugglers”.
But rights groups say it will be particularly harmful to LGBTIQ people given Rwanda’s track record on LGBTIQ rights.
“It’s appalling for everyone. But for LGBTIQ people in particular, it’s substantially worse,” says Sonia Lenegan, legal and policy director at the NGO Rainbow Migration.
“The government must abandon this problematic agreement. There will be legal challenges to this.”
Rwanda unsafe for LGBTIQ people
The new agreement means that LGBTQI people who faced grave danger in their home countries and sought protection in the UK will be sent back to a country where it’s unsafe to be openly LGBTIQ, says Lenegan.
“If you are an LGBTIQ person who has been sent from the UK to Rwanda, you are now in a situation where it is not really safe to be out about who you are. However at the same time you are having to claim asylum on the basis that you are gay.”
Lenegan says right now it’s unclear how Rwanda handles LGBTIQ asylum cases, or whether it’s even possible to make a claim on such grounds.
A Human Rights Watch report last year found that Rwandan authorities rounded up and arbitrarily detained more than a dozen gay and transgender people, sex workers, street children, and others in the months before a planned high-profile international conference in June 2021.
The same report collected testimonies from LGBTIQ people in Rwanda who alleged that security officials accused them of “not representing Rwandan values”.
Rwanda does not have laws against homosexual and gender non-conforming conduct. But this doesn’t mean it’s a safe place for people who identify as LGBTIQ, says a community organiser in the country’s capital, Kigali.
“It does not criminalise homosexuality but also does not recognise it officially,” he told openDemocracy on condition of anonymity. “We don’t have laws protecting LGBTIQ people. There is stigma in the family, workplace and schools.”
Some LGBTIQ people in Rwanda have sought asylum in the UK based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, though the numbers are low.
‘Expensive and cruel’
Lenegan says a similar previous agreement between Israel and Rwanda saw thousands of asylum seekers being transferred to Rwanda, but almost all left the country immediately to pursue the dangerous journey to Europe again.
Denmark also passed a similar law last year, seeking to process asylum claims outside of the European Union, but it’s not clear if it’s yet been used. The African Union condemned the plan at the time, saying it skirted responsibility.
Despite this, the UK government has sought to introduce similar “offshoring” provisionsin the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will return to the UK House of Commons next week. Advocates have warned that the process could make it even more difficult for a person to “prove” their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This offshoring model originates in Australia. “The sheer cost of it is shocking,” said Lenegan. “Australia has spent billions and billions on doing this. It makes no sense to follow Australia when we’re in a very different position geographically.
“To think this process will deter people is very unlikely. Given how unclear this all is, I doubt most migrants will really understand that there’s a genuinely large risk they could be sent to Rwanda.
“You’re putting people in a very dangerous situation and spending a lot of money doing that when there’s no clear evidence that it will achieve the government’s apparent aim of deterrence.
“It would be cheaper to invest in the Home Office instead, and get them to make efficient decisions. The government has gone for the expensive and cruel option rather than the cheaper, more efficient one.”
The UK Home Office told openDemocracy it did not believe the new scheme would put LGBTIQ people in danger. “Everyone considered for relocation will be screened and have access to legal advice,” said a spokesperson. “Decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis and nobody will be moved if it’s unsafe or inappropriate for them to be removed.”
He added: “We’re not commenting on the exact criteria and further criteria of the grounds for which people could be removed.
“This doesn’t just pertain to gay people – this is extended to the question around children, families, all the differeing health needs of individuals that we’re not providing further comment on this – just for the general reason of not potentially tipping off smuggling gangs to target vulnerable people.”
Rwanda government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said that, in Rwanda, “all people, including those identifying as LGBTIQ, can feel safe” because “a central principle of Rwanda’s reconstruction has been ensuring that every single person is treated, first and foremost, as a human being” and the country has been “ranked highly for gender equality and inclusion of historically marginalised groups”.