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Africa’s open door for refugees

Current Affairs

Africa’s open door for refugees

UK citizens have every right to question the motives of their government in offshoring its asylum responsibilities to Rwanda, but to then question Rwanda’s capacity to care for the welfare of refugees goes too far, says New African editor Anver Versi.

Recent international events have left Africa with a few moral and ethical conundrums to ponder over.

In one instance, Britain’s decision to offshore some of the asylum seekers who wash up on its shores to Rwanda in exchange for £120m in ‘economic transformation’ support, dominated the British media in April to such an extent that it almost pushed the coverage of the ongoing war in the Ukraine off the front pages.

By and large, the reaction was hostile in the extreme with all (bar the Conservative right-wing press) condemning the move as a cynical gesture to detract from the ‘Partygate’ scandal that hung over Prime Minster Boris Johnson like the Sword of Damocles. It was seen as a move to ‘throw red meat’ to the virulent anti-immigration voters, whose support the ‘nasty’ Conservative Party hopes to retain during the local elections scheduled for early May.

The liberal press was scathing in its condemnation of the move, accusing the PM and his Home Secretary Priti Patel (herself of Ugandan origins) of callousness in the extreme and cold-bloodedly shunting off their responsibilities to care for genuine asylum seekers, in fear for their lives, to a poor country (Rwanda) on the promise of an initial £120m plus costs.

Even Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior bishop in the Church of England, took to the pulpit over Easter and condemned the decision as “opposite to the nature of God”. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said: “UNHCR does not support the outsourcing of asylum states’ obligations”, while Enver Solomon of Britain’s Refugee Council said the government was treating asylum seekers as “human cargo to be shipped to Rwanda and forgotten about”.

Drawing the line

The British have every right to question the motives of their government in offshoring its asylum responsibilities – and this controversy will rumble on – but to then add that Rwanda itself has human rights issues and that it cannot be relied on to care for the welfare of refugees is another issue altogether and one that cannot go unchallenged. Here we must draw a line because in effect this says that an African country cannot be trusted to look after refugees with any degree of decency. 

In fact the opposite is true. Africa currently hosts around 30m refugees, a third of all displaced people worldwide. And according to UNHCR, 85% of refugees live in developing countries while the richest nations host just 15%.

Uganda, a poor country itself, is now home to over a million refugees who have been settled, welcomed into local communities and allowed to earn a living. The UNHCR has praised Uganda’s treatment of its refugees as an example to be emulated.

Rwanda itself has over 130,000 refugees, five times as many as the UK on per capita terms and who are not detained in soul-destroying camps or subjected to severe restrictions on working as they are in Europe. They are allowed to try and make new lives for themselves. “From day 1, migrants will be offered human capital investments, aligned with their capabilities and goals. This includes skills training, language training, higher education, as well as healthcare and social protection,” said Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Vincent Buruta.

Life for refugees anywhere is full of difficulties and heartbreak. In the rich countries, which many of them risk their lives trying to reach, they are often despised, abused, treated like criminals and as sub-humans who should have no rights at all. At least in most African countries, despite the poverty of the local populations, they are accorded human dignity and absorbed into communities.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said in relation to the red carpet laid out in Western nations for refugees from Ukraine, that even a fraction of this support is not given to refugees from the developing world. “Some are more equal than others,” he observed, adding that he hoped the world would come to its senses and treats all human lives equally. 

Perhaps also the rich countries should acknowledge the sacrifices being made by poor African countries to make life worth something for those who have lost everything, and consider that a fraction more of the aid that is being mobilised for Ukrainian refugees would make a great deal of difference to the African countries that are so far doing a sterling job, with very little resources, with their own refugee problems. 

Unlike the UK, they are not in a position to offshore their responsibilities and I dare say, would not even think of doing so even if they could – and this is something we should be proud of as Africans: the spirit of Ubuntu is not yet dead. 

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Written by Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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