When the UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman visited Rwanda in March to discuss the asylum transfer deal between the two countries, she presented it as a progressive solution to an “unprecedented” global migration crisis. On June 29, the UK Court of Appeal ruled the deal unlawful, concluding that there is a real risk that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be returned to their home countries, where they face risk of persecution. Yet the government is already saying it will appeal the ruling.
To justify the deal, the UK government has had to downplay Rwanda’s appalling rights record and the risks asylum seekers may face. Refugees there have been shot at and killed for protesting cuts in food rations. Critics of the government are routinely jailed, tortured, and sometimes found dead. The Rwandan president himself has crudely politicised refugee rights. And as this case has unfolded, Rwanda has been playing an active role in one of the biggest displacement crises on the African continent by backing the M23, an abusive armed group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Over the past year, the M23 has occupied large parts of North Kivu province, which borders Rwanda. The Congolese army responded by collaborating with ethnic militias with abusive records, compounding an already dire situation. Human Rights Watch recently interviewed over 100 people to document the horrific violence. They told us that the M23 committed killings and gang rapes as it captured towns and villages. In one village, we identified 14 mass graves. The humanitarian situation is nothing short of catastrophic, with over one million displaced people who have fled their homes to escape atrocities.
The evidence of Rwandan support for the M23 is clear. The UN has published photographs and other information, and accused several senior Rwandan army officials of running operations and providing troop reinforcements.
Kigali has a long record of involvement in mass displacement and human suffering in Congo. Rwanda’s military previously provided support to the M23 when the armed group first emerged in 2012, after initiating a mutiny against the Congolese army. In response, the UK, alongside several other governments — including the US, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the EU — suspended or delayed part of their assistance programs to Rwanda.
However, only six weeks later, the UK government restored half the aid. Andrew Mitchell, then the international development secretary, was later questioned by the International Development Select Committee on his controversial decision to do so in his final hours in that position. The committee concluded that he had not acted as a ‘rogue minister’ but that the aid should cease.
Fast-forward to 2023, and the US, Belgium, Germany and France have all called on Rwanda to end its support to the M23. On the other hand, the UK Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes released a general statement condemning “external” support to armed groups in response to the UN report, but refrained from naming Rwanda.
Curbing the M23 alone is not a panacea. Eastern Congo faces many other issues, including the government forces’ collaboration with violent armed groups and a worrying rise in ethnic tensions. But ending the M23’s abuses requires concerted action to stop Rwanda from continuing to provide military support.
There is still time for the UK to drop its egregious asylum deal and change its blinkered approach to the horrors taking place in eastern Congo. The UK should call out Rwanda on its support for the M23, and endorse sanctions against M23 leaders and Rwandan commanders responsible for providing military assistance. Doing so is critical to signal that the UK can – and will – act decisively on the international stage to end atrocities.