Forced and voluntary migration, and asylum seeking, represent some of the most contentious issues in European politics but western commentators often fail to acknowledge that the most significant net migration movement every year takes place within the continent of Africa. African states have learned to deal with these movements. Moreover, some African nations are stepping up to take a leading role in assisting with asylum seekers and implementing their full responsibilities under Global Migration Compact for migrants from their own continent and further afield. Rwanda is a case study for the way in which African problems can find African solutions but also how African states can provide examples of best practice for the world.
The sources of the internal displacement of people within the subcontinent are the same as those that drive Africans to try and reach Europe: economic ambition or need, conflict and natural disaster/climate change. Rwanda, the country that has led on receiving migrants from crisis situations in its near neighbours has also accepted refugees from further afield in the African continent and from as far away as Afghanistan. Rwanda has taken a lead in stepping up to his challenge, and it also a state with a deeply troubled history of internal displacement, external forced migration and, of course genocide.
The President of Rwanda first stepped up to assist with vulnerable people in Libya back in November 2017 when the African Union, the EU and the UN agreed to put in place a joint task force on refugees and President Kagame agreed that Rwanda would take its share. This led to an agreement to create an Emergency Transit Mechanism for taking people at risk and needing protection in Libya to Rwanda. This agreement has now been extended to December 2023.
The total refugee population in Rwanda was 127,000 Refugees end of December 2021 with around 400 asylum seekers. The majority of these are from neighbouring countries and they do not want to leave African because they hope to return to their homes one day. At times in its history these numbers have been much higher and there have been mass movements of Rwandans out of the country in the face of the extreme Hutu nationalism of the 1980s and early 1990s and then again in the aftermath of the genocide and its ending by the RPF in the mid-1990s. Recovery from decades of conflict and a genocide that claimed over a million lives in the four months of ethnically based mass murder and in the aftermath of invasion and regime change, has been extremely challenging for the government of President Paul Kagame. Once universally championed by western governments, his administration is not without its critics in the west. However, the government of Rwanda has embraced its responsibilities as a member of the African Union in many fields, including peace keeping, and it has fulfilled its obligations under the global compact on refugees.
Nayana Bose, UNHCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Officer based in Kigali says Rwanda has been impressive with the progress it has made towards meeting its GCR objectives. “Rwanda has done an excellent job integrating refugees in the national education system, including urban refugees in the national community-based health insurance plan, providing them with national ID cards and offering them livelihoods opportunities,” she explains. One of the features of the Rwandan approach has been to proactively addressing issues like violence in the camps, especially that directed at women and girls. The government has also set out to integrate refugees into the community by promoting, as Nayana Bose stresses, access to mainstream education, and opening the national community based health insurance schemes to refugees but also developing clearer energy sources for cooking in the camps, and many other examples of best practice in the field.
The government has also been dealing with the threat of covid-19 to the vulnerable communities in camps by rolling out vaccination programmes to the Libyan and other migrants using some of the first batches of vaccine delivered by the COVAX programme last March. Ahmed Baba Fall, UNHCR representative in Rwanda said: “Ensuring that refugees are included in the vaccine programme is key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Their inclusion in the national vaccination rollout is another mark of the Government of Rwanda’s generosity and humanitarian commitment towards the cause of refugees and asylum seekers.”
The European Union member state, Denmark, has effectively recognised the high quality of the Rwandan system by signing a memorandum of agreement with Kigali to allow asylum seekers to be processed in Rwanda, outside the European Union. The memorandum calls for changes to the “unfair and unethical” current asylum system, which the signatories say is “incentivizing children, women and men to embark on dangerous journeys along migratory routes, while human traffickers earn fortunes.”
An African country dealing with African problems and even helping an EU member state deal with theirs, time for other African states to follow?