Survivors of the Rwandan genocide who currently live in the hostel that will house asylum seekers sent from the UK under a controversial Home Office plan were dispatched on a day trip to prevent them disrupting the visit of home secretary Priti Patel this month, the Observer has learned.
Patel toured the hostel, known as Hope House, when she was in Kigali to sign the deal with Rwanda. Her visit was carefully managed by both the Rwandan authorities and the Home Office to present the plan in the best possible light.
The proposal has been widely condemned as inhumane, illegal, unworkable and prohibitively expensive. Critics have included Tory MPs and peers, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the archbishop of Canterbury, who said in his Easter Sunday sermon that the scheme “does not stand the judgment of God”.
The asylum seekers from the UK will be housed at Hope House, a facility built to provide safe accommodation and a “new family” to between 150 and 190 young people orphaned in the 1994 genocide, when up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in three months of mass killing.
Many of the survivors have now moved out, but those who remain have spent most of their lives in the hostel and have limited resources.
On the day of Patel’s visit, 22 residents were told by authorities they were being taken on a 56-mile round trip to the southern town of Bugesera, where they spent much of the day viewing genocide memorials. After returning to Kigali, they were taken to parliament to see another memorial. They returned to Hope House after the British officials had gone.
“This is why we think everything is not done in good faith,” one resident told the Observer.
The UK government has said it will pay an initial £120m to the Rwandan government for implementing the plan, but will have to pay additional costs for housing, food and travel.
The residents of Hope House, formerly known as the Association of Student Survivors of Genocide (AERG) hostel, have been told they will be rehoused to make room for the asylum seekers sent from Britain. They expressed concerns about their future. “Often, residents who leave the hotel come back after failing to get jobs. It is hard outside here when you don’t have a job,” one told the Observer last week. A second worried that pledges to find them alternative homes would not be fulfilled. “The government is saying it will rent us somewhere else but we don’t believe it,” he said. “They are telling us to go but they haven’t given us money. Remember, some of these survivors lost entire family. Where do they want us to go?”
The residents asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
A Rwandan government spokesperson told the Observer that to suggest the Hope Hostel is an orphanage, or is a venue intended to house orphans of the genocide, was “incorrect”.
“Hope Hostel was built to accommodate student survivors of genocide but is no longer used for these purposes as most of the residents are adults with jobs and families, and are living independently,” the spokesperson said.
“Currently Hope Hostel is hosting a small number of people, the youngest of whom is 29. Some in this group are in the process of graduating from university and college. It has been agreed they will soon leave and become eligible for living allowances until they find employment. [The] AERG has had plans to convert the facility into a commercial hostel for some time.”
Audace Mudahemuka, president of AERG, said the hostel was built by Rwandan donors to support student survivors and had “served a wonderful purpose.”
“But it was being wound down long before the government contacted us about leasing it for this programme. Only a small fraction of the beds in the hostel were being used, and the facility is expensive to maintain. We were delighted when the government offered to rent the property, as the funds we receive from them will allow us to provide support to hundreds or even thousands of genocide survivors through our other projects across the country’, Mudahemuka said.
Officials did not deny reports of the day trip, saying only that “residents at Hope Hostel can come and go as they please.”
There are also doubts about Patel’s claim that migrants sent to Rwanda after illegally entering the UK would thrive there if their asylum claims are refused. Reporters who accompanied the home secretary were introduced to a couple from Yemen who ran a successful cafe. Burhan Almerdas, 37, praised the Rwandan people as “welcoming” and said there was a business-friendly local environment.
But though Rwanda has been credited with rapid economic growth, some statistics are contested, and the benefits of any new prosperity are not evenly shared. Bapaste Gatsinzi, who sought refuge in Rwanda in 2018 from neighbouring Burundi, said he relocated his family to Uganda recently because life is too “difficult” in Rwanda.
“I will also join them next month and try life again,” said Gatsinzi, who lived in the eastern province of Cibitoke, a town that borders Burundi.
An Ethiopian refugee who settled in 2018 told the Observer: “It’s hard to survive in Rwanda because the cost of living is very high. I set up a grocery but I don’t have customers. People don’t have money, and I will close soon because I cannot afford rent.”
An Eritrean who came to Rwanda in 2017 said he had been unable to find regular work and survived on handouts. Most of his friends have relocated to Uganda, he said.
Human rights campaigners have long criticised Rwanda’s veteran leader, Paul Kagame, for his intolerance of dissent, and the refugees who spoke to the Observer requested anonymity. According to officials, Rwanda is already home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan.
Opposition politicians in Rwanda have criticised the agreement to accept asylum seekers flown from the UK, saying western countries should “own up to international obligations on the migration issues”.
In 2019, Rwanda agreed to take in refugees and asylum seekers evacuated from detention centres in Libya. The country also had a shortlived agreement with Israel.
Last week, Kagame rejected criticism of the deal. “We are not trading human beings, please. This is not the case. We are actually helping,” he said.
“It’s a clearcut issue and it was actually something of an innovation that Rwanda put forth to deal with this migration issue.”