Hope Hostel is not a 5-star hotel. But it isn’t a dump, either. The renovated 50-room facility in Kigali’s Kagugu neighborhood has a new coat of paint, fresh bedding, a lot of new security cameras and a changed mission. After hosting student survivors of the 1994 genocide for nearly three decades, it will be the first home for migrants deported from the United Kingdom.
The Rwandan government told CNN that the migrants will receive full-board accommodation, health care and support for five years or until they’re self-sufficient. It’s a controversial scheme the UK has touted as an innovative approach to safe and legal asylum that will disrupt the dangerous business of people smugglers. But it has been condemned by dozens of refugee rights groups, international agencies, British leaders, the head of the Anglican church and even Rwandan opposition politicians.
A week before the first arrivals were due, workers were putting final touches to a small wooden shed next to the hostel’s restaurant. “This will be a shop so they can buy whatever they need here instead of going outside,” its managing director, Ismael Bakina, explained. Two covered areas in the gardens will serve as smoking zones and a tent further away will double as an interview room and a games area.
There is an airport-style security check-in before reception, including a luggage scanner and guards with metal detectors. They’re polite, professional and thorough. “As you can see, we’re ready for the migrants, even today,” Bakina says, talking to CNN just hours before the first round of legal challenges against the deportation were launched in the UK last week. The legal cases against the policy have so far been unsuccessful, and the first flight from the UK to Rwanda is due to take off on Tuesday.
Whenever they arrive, two migrants will share each room, with communal bathrooms and laundry areas on every floor. They will also have two red-carpeted prayer areas overlooking the hills of Kigali, free Wi-Fi and computers to keep up with their legal cases. Rwandan authorities point out the relative privilege the migrants will have here, compared with the provision in British detention facilities.
“We want them to have safe, dignified accommodations, and there’s also a package that they will receive so that they’re able to gain skills to get any education, maybe start a business,” Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told CNN.
The UK says it will pay Rwanda £120 million ($145 million) over the next five years to finance the program. On top of that, the UK has also promised to pay for the processing and integration costs for each relocated person, covering the cost of legal advice, caseworkers, translators, accommodation, food and healthcare. According to a parliamentary research briefing, the British government said it expects these will be similar to asylum processing costs in the UK, which stand at around £12,000 per person.
The UK has refused to disclose the cost of the flights it will charter to transport deportees to Rwanda. The Home Office said in its latest annual report it paid £8.6 million to charter 47 deportation flights carrying 883 people in 2020. While the cost of individual flights varied depending on the destination, the figures mean that on average, the Home Office spent £183,000 per flight or £9,700 per person.
Because there is no cap on the number of migrants, thousands could potentially pour into Kigali within the first five years of the plan.
The supposed safety Rwanda is offering has been questioned by international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW), which argues the country “cannot be considered a safe third country to send asylum seekers.”
HRW has been monitoring and investigating human rights conditions in Rwanda for decades and has documented abuses ranging from “repression of free speech, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture by Rwandan authorities.”
The organization accused Rwandan authorities of killing at least 12 refugees and arresting more than 60 in 2018 after police opened fire on a group of demonstrators protesting against cuts to food rations. The Rwandan National Commission on Human Rights investigated the incident and asserted that the police “had to resort to force after all peaceful mans had failed” but called the tragedy an isolated event.
The UK plan has also drawn criticism from the only opposition party that ran against Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the last election, the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, who say the country can’t afford it. “Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. Do you think for Rwanda it is going to be easy to help these people?” Jean Claude Ntezimana, the secretary general told CNN.
Rwanda is almost a tenth the size of the UK but is home to nearly 13 million people, almost one-fifth of the UK population.
The Green Party accuses the UK of violating its international obligations by shipping its unwanted migrants 4,000 miles away to Rwanda. “When it is not the choice of the refugees, it is inhumane and illegal,” Ntezimana said.
The Rwandan government maintains it is perfectly legal.
“There are no laws being broken with this partnership,” Makolo told CNN. “There is nothing in the Refugee Convention that prevents asylum seekers from being relocated to another safe country.”
Makolo admits that a similar program with Israel did not work and Rwanda abandoned it “very quickly.” But, she says, the UK migrant deal is totally different and will succeed. In fact, she said, Rwanda could soon be accepting migrants from Denmark as well, with negotiations close to a conclusion.
Most recently, Rwanda partnered with the UN’s refugee agency to take in vulnerable asylum-seekers evacuated from Libya. A little over 1,000 migrants have passed through the Gashora Emergency Transit Center in the three years the program has been active. Migrants stay between four and eight months on average before being resettled abroad, according to the center’s manager. The migrants have three choices: resettlement elsewhere, voluntary repatriation to their home country, or local integration into Rwandan society. No one has chosen the latter two, according to Fares Ruyumbu, the camp manager.
“You can’t compare it (Libya and Rwanda),” said Zemen Fesaha, 26, an Eritrean refugee at the Gashora transit center. He spent four years in what he described as horrendous conditions in Libya as he repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. “It’s like going from hell to heaven.”
Although the 11 months he’s spent in Rwanda at the camp have been safer and easier, he’s determined to leave.
And Zemen is not alone in this. None of the refugees at the emergency center to whom CNN spoke wished to stay in Rwanda.
Nyalada Gatluak Jany, 26, from South Sudan, dreams of moving to Finland with her 1-and-a-half-year-old son. “What I want is not here, it’s there,” she said.