Human Rights

No Place of a Refuge? The Disturbing Trend of Reconceiving International Refugee Law

Reflections and Perspectives on the Externalization of the UK Asylum Policy in Rwanda

Since 2015, there has been a movement of people reaching the shores of the European Union, also known as the Syrian refugee crisis, when 1.3 million people came to the EU to request asylum, and most of those refugees trace their origins to three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This crisis had considerable short-term and long-term effects on the politics of both the affected European Union (EU) Countries and the United Kingdom (UK) as a whole.

Political parties such as the Conservative Party and the UK Independence Party led by populist leaders like UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage capitalized on anti-immigrant sentiment with their famous and deceptive campaign slogans of “getting our country back” and “get Brexit done” which they used as a discourse designed to whip up hatred against migrants and asylum seekers. During the 2016 Brexit Referendum campaign, Boris Johnson took a radical stance, saying that Britain had lost control of its borders[1] and that part of the reason for leaving the EU was an opportunity for it to regain control of its borders. He pledged to install a migration control system, whose job would be to reduce the number of people migrating to the UK by introducing an Australian style-points based-system[2] that targets only skilled migrant workers and, simultaneously, ends the free movement for EU citizens into the UK.

In April 2022, the UK’s government, through Priti Patel, then Home Secretary, signed an agreement with Rwanda in which the latter would receive migrants and asylum seekers who had arrived in the UK illegally. The policy was introduced in a bid to stop people seeking refuge from trying to enter the UK by small boats or trucks across the English Channel[3]. Consequently, the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and the government of the Republic of Rwanda provide that: “Anyone who has arrived in the UK from 1 January 2020 through illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods will be subjected to relocation to Rwanda.” [4]

In addition, the Rwandan authorities will deal with asylum seekers’ claims, with successful applicants being granted refugee status in the country (Rwanda).[5] It’s important to note this deal is the latest among the many contentious agreements of relocating migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers signed by Rwanda. In May 2014, Rwanda and Uganda found themselves under the international spotlight[6] after the Israeli Cabinet announced that the two East African countries had signed deals agreeing to host refugees relocated or deported by Israel by force.

Asylum and Relocation to “Safe Countries of Origin” under the Rwanda- UK joint Migration and Economic Development partnership: Does this indicate the start of a new era?

Britain’s new plan for immigration clearly reflects the shift in the externalization idea, and the UK’s deal to shift asylum seekers to Rwanda is indeed an example of externalization as part of a larger trend and efforts made by some Western states to externalize some basic functions in the spheres of migration and asylum. However, this deal is problematic, especially under the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, but the Memorandum of Understanding is also incompatible with international law.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares the right of everyone to seek asylum from persecution. Additionally, the fundamental principle of non-refoulement requires that states should not return refugees to territories where their lives or freedom may be endangered.[7] The principle of non-refoulement prescribes, broadly, that no refugee should be returned to any country where they are likely to face persecution, other ill-treatment, or torture. Yet between granting asylum and non-refoulement stands a continuing practice in many parts of the world of imposing restrictions on the freedom of movement of refugees and asylum seekers, often indefinitely and without regard to their special situation or to the need to find durable solutions to their plight.[8] Under international law, states are responsible for examining asylum claims made in their territory or jurisdiction. However, at a procedural level, a number of states deny access to the national protection determination process if an asylum seeker could have obtained effective protection elsewhere.[9] This practice is known as “the safe country mechanism.”[10] The concept of the state country is a procedural mechanism for shutting asylum seekers to other states said to have primary responsibility for them, thereby avoiding the necessity to make a decision on the merits because another country is deemed to be secure for them.[11] At the same time, the scale and severity of the new restrictive asylum policy led some observers to ask if we are witnessing the end of asylum and refugee protection in international law.[12] Crucially, these are politically motivated measures that aim only to reassure their populist electorate and their right far-wing audience that their governments are in control of the situation as they shift the core problems to developing states that cannot provide adequate responses to these challenges.[13]

Quid of the choice of Rwanda?  

From the beginning, the deal of relocating asylum seekers and migrants to Rwanda has proved extremely controversial for several valid reasons. So far, no asylum seekers have been flown to Rwanda from the UK. Although an attempt was scheduled for mid-June 2022, it was aborted after a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.[14]

Currently, Rwanda hosts about 127,369[15]refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom come just from two countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo (about 76,968) and Burundi (about 49,859). This is a significant number, given the size of the country and the density[16] of its population. Nonetheless, this is a pale figure compared to neighboring Uganda or Kenya. The responsibility of assisting refugees in Rwanda is coordinated between the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the national ministry in charge of Emergency Management (MINEMA) together, they manage refugee camps, repatriation, and projects. UNHCR largely defers to the government and only plays a supporting role in refugee assistance. 

In addition, since 2019, the country has hosted the relocation program for migrants and asylum seekers from Lybia; more than 1100 migrants have been transferred to Rwanda through the Gashora transit center, where these refugees can apply for asylum or resettlement in a third country.

However, Rwanda remains a very politically restricted country. Legal and administrative constraints on political advocacy and freedom of speech still affect Rwandan citizens and assistance agencies or NGOs. As they risk seeing their activities curtailed by the state if they denounce the treatment of refugees, for instance, the 2017 Karongi incidents of the shooting and killing of refugees in the Kiziba refugee camp by the Police.

Analyses of the Rwandan governance model have often oscillated between ephemeral bursts of optimism and pessimism. However, the country has enjoyed relative stability and coherence under the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s ruling coalition during the last two decades. Rwanda’s annual GDP growth was 7.7%, and the Rwandan government is widely lauded for its political commitment to socio-economic development. Yet there is widespread criticism of its poor record on human rights and political freedoms from its development partners. Furthermore, during the last two decades, there has been tense political contestation between different factions of the ruling party. Four senior cadres left the country in the 2000s and they formed an opposition party in exile. Public dissent and criticism are barely tolerated, and all the recent reports about the situation of human rights in the country are littered with names of opponents arbitrarily detained, silenced, and dissenters muzzled. The same kind of human rights abuse that initially led those asylum seekers to flee their respective countries. In fact, Rwanda is still classified widely as an authoritarian state.

Additionally, to all these factors, it’s important to keep in mind that Rwanda is a relatively small country, about 26.000 km2 in size; therefore, finding available land to expand asylum seekers and migrants hosting structure or which refugees can farm is difficult.

More importantly, the focus lies on the public perception that hosting refugees constitutes a burden, especially in poorer states such as Rwanda. Their presence requires more substantial demands on land and natural resources, education, health, and social services facilities.


If the UK-Rwanda deal survives expected legal challenges and becomes operational, this will inevitably jeopardize the past World War II human rights legal architecture and openly challenge the critical principle of territorial asylum. For instance, Britain’s new plan for immigration reflects clearly the shift in the externalization idea. More especially, such ideas are no longer grounded on multilateral approaches for extraterritorial asylum processing; rather, they are now clearly based on bilateral agreements extending protection.

While it is clear this recent agreement signed between Rwanda and the UK on relocating migrants and asylum seekers in Rwanda is setting a bad precedence, and this will risk encouraging other countries, such as Denmark, to ignore their legal obligations under international law. Most notably, Austria and Denmark are now eyeing the option of offloading their responsibility under the international law of hosting asylum seekers to third countries like Rwanda through short-sighted deals and arbitrary labeling of “safe countries of origin”. However, the arbitrary labeling of “safe countries of origin” must not be misused to keep out migrants from the United Kingdom or the European Union. Rather, western powers should seek to respond and address the root causes of migrations from the global south.

More importantly, this deal threatens to create a net shift from a human rights-based and moral shared values system to a more transactional one where states are willing to host refugees as pawns or leverage for economic deals or the state’s geostrategic interest rather than for legitimate humanitarian reasons.

[1] Conservative Party Manifesto 2019, <> accessed on 12 September 2023.

[2] Agence France Press: UK election 2019 Boris Johnson unveils conservative party’s manifesto, <> accessed on 12 September 2023.

[3] The Home Secretary Oral Statement to Parliament on Rwanda, <> accessed on 12 September 2023.

[4] Memorandum of Understanding between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Rwanda for the provision of asylum partnership arrangement, <>, accessed on 12 September 2023.

[5] Ibid, point 9, section 9.1.1: Asylum Processing Arrangement.

[6] Yotam Gidron, How Israel’s Secret Refugee Deals Collapsed in the Light of Day, <>, accessed on 12 September 2023.

[7] Article 33 of the convention relating to the status of refugees of 28 July 1951.

[8] Fitzpatrick, J: “Temporary Protection of Refugees; Elements of a formalized regime, 94 AJIL 2000, p. 282.

[9] Guy S. Goodwin Gill: The Individual Refugee, The 1951 convention and the treaty of Amsterdam in Guild, E&Harlow, C. Eds.

[10] Guy S. Goodwin Gill: The Individual Refugee, The 1951 convention and the treaty of Amsterdam in Guild, E&Harlow, C. Eds.

[11] UNHCR; Asylum Processes (Fair and Efficient Asylum procedures), UN Doc, 31 May 2001, p.12.

[12] Rutinwa Bonaventure: The end of asylum? The changing nature of refugee policies in Africa, New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper No.5, Geneva; UNHCR, May (1999).

[13]: Vedsten-Hasen, Jensen: Refugees rights and realities; evolving international concepts and regimes, (F&Twomey P Eds1999), p. 287.

[14] The European Court grants urgent interim measures in cases concerning asylum seeker’s imminent removal from the UK to Rwanda, <> accessed 12 September 2023.

[15] MINEMA: Refugees management,<> accessed 12 September 2023.

[16] According to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, the population reaches 13,2 million in 2022, <> accessed on 12 September 2023.


  • Louis Gitinywa

    Louis Gitinywa is a Rwandan Advocate. He is a senior partner at RDA Attorneys LLP. He is also 2017 TGCL Alumni and holds an LL.M from the University of Dar Es Salaam, (Tanzania) and a Post graduate Diploma in Constitutional Law from Central European University, (CEU- Budapest), Hungary. His field of research is in Trade law, International Economic Law and Regional integration, Tech & ICT law, Fintech.

By Louis Gitinywa

Louis Gitinywa is a Rwandan Advocate. He is a senior partner at RDA Attorneys LLP. He is also 2017 TGCL Alumni and holds an LL.M from the University of Dar Es Salaam, (Tanzania) and a Post graduate Diploma in Constitutional Law from Central European University, (CEU- Budapest), Hungary. His field of research is in Trade law, International Economic Law and Regional integration, Tech & ICT law, Fintech.

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