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Why Rwanda? Border Control and Transnational Penal Power in an Unequal World



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Guest Post by Nicola Palmer, Reader in Criminal Law, Kings College London, Dickson Poon School of Law.

The British Government’s agreement to send people seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda has been rightly condemned. The debates over this policy have so far centred on two issues: the legality of deeming some people’s asylum applications inadmissible on arrival enabling deportation to a third state and the suitability or otherwise of Rwanda as a destination. Both of these issues offer potential routes for legal challenge. Less attention has been given to the question of why this agreement has been reached with Rwanda specifically. The agreement is consistent with the Rwandan government’s pursuit of a foreign policy that coheres with their historical experiences coming out of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and offers opportunities for leverage with powerful states.

For fifteen years, the global pursuit of individuals suspected of involvement in the 1994 genocide has helped Rwanda to establish a transnational network of co-operation among criminal justice and border control personnel. This has included states with whom refugee transfer arrangements are now emerging, notably the UK and Denmark.

The Rwandan government is well aware of the political and diplomatic opportunities offered by Western states’ increasingly draconian border control policies. Since 2007, the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit (GFTU), a special branch of the Rwandan National Public Prosecution Authority, has been working with police forces, border control officers and prosecuting authorities around the world to investigate, extradite or deport individual genocide suspects. 1146 genocide indictments issued by the GFTU have led to legal proceedings in over twenty countries around the world. My database of these proceedings shows that deportations for immigration-related offences have been quicker, better resourced, much less scrutinised and more immediately in favour of sending people back to Rwanda than extraditions on genocide charges.

The Rwandan government has long recognised that border control is setting the terms of global South/North engagements. It provides the basis on which states are willing to commit resources towards particular policies. The picture concerning extradition of genocide suspects to Rwanda has been mixed with the UK, France, Italy, Switzerland and Finland refusing extradition and Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany and the DRC allowing it. In contrast, deportation and immigration-related proceedings have seen consistent removal of residency permits, withdrawal of citizenships, denial of asylum applications or criminal prosecutions for immigration offences across all of these states, as well as from the US, Canada and Uganda.

The wounds of the of 1994 genocide against the Tutsi operate in complex ways. As Scholastique Mukasonga recently highlighted, the ‘Migration and Economic Development Partnership’ coheres with deeply held ideas around Rwandan hospitality and histories of refugeehood. Rwanda has been an important refugee recipient country consistently responding to migration in the east and central African region. It has also pursued a proactive foreign policy in which these historical experiences coming out of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi can also offer opportunities for leverage with powerful states. This has been seen in the Rwandan provision of UN peacekeepers in Sudan, Mali, Haiti and the Central African Republic alongside the recent bi-lateral agreement with Mozambique to deploy Rwandan troops in the northern province of Cabo Delgado.

In January 2020, King’s College London hosted President Kagame. The event was chaired by Alexander Downer, the former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs. As foreign affairs minister in John Howard’s government from 1996 to 2017, Downer was the architect of the policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore camps. In February 2022 he was appointed to lead the review of the UK’s border force and has pushed for off-shore processing centres, with states named as possible partners ranging from Cyprus, Nauru and Ascension to Ghana and Albania. Ultimately, the UK has found policy alignment and common ground with Rwanda.

The Rwandan government is attuned to operating in an economic and politically unequal world. These sorts of partnerships open up a range of avenues for funds to move with very little scrutiny of these deals. The global pandemic saw Rwanda’s GDP growth plummet from 9.46% in 2019 to -3.35% in 2020. Rwandan President Paul Kagame rightly led the criticism on the global inequalities in the sale and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. When I was in Kigali in January 2021, it was a city under immense strain. In urban settings, people were hungry, and the difficulty of getting access to the vaccination created huge pressure on key sectors such as tourism. Responding to this plight, the ongoing asylum agreement negotiations with Denmark initially included an agreement on vaccine ‘donations’, that Rwanda strongly rejected.

Ideas about carceral border control travel through a range of transnational networks underpinned by unequal global economic and geopolitical relations. It is important to understand where they come from, why they gain traction and where they land in order to challenge them. These policies are about migration control as a carceral response to global inequality and they must be resisted on these terms.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Palmer, N. (2022)Why Rwanda? Border Control and Transnational Penal Power in an Unequal World. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/04/why-rwanda-border [date]

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