How the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is 21st-century imperialism writ large

In announcing his plan to partner with Rwanda to manage migration, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed, on April 14 2022, that the UK is “a beacon of openness and generosity”. He lauded the great British tradition of offering sanctuary to those who seek it through legal routes while outlining how he intends to curb what he termed illegal migration.

Under this new scheme, people claiming asylum in the UK are to be relocated to Rwanda, where their cases will be processed. If they are granted asylum, they will be encouraged to remain in Rwanda for at least five years.

While the UK government has promised smooth operations, it is unclear how asylum seekers relocated from the UK might be accommodated in Rwanda, beyond temporary plans to convert a former hostel into a detention centre. There is also no sense of what will happen to those who are not granted asylum.

Religious, international and human rights organisations are questioning the legality of this process. However, this attempt to move the immigration process offshore is not unique. It is part of a wider strategy deployed by the powerful governments of richer nations, from Australia to the EU, to discourage unwanted arrivals by creating conditions that are hostile or inhumane.

And while they outsource migration management to low-income countries, these richer countries are furthering their own geopolitical interests. Human displacement is becoming a motor for what experts – from Canadian activist and author Harsha Walia to British political scientist John Smith – identify as 21st-century imperialism. Migration is not merely a consequence of poverty, inequalities, conflict and environmental crises. It is a political tool.

A Border Force boat pictured returning to Folkestone Harbour, with white cliffs in the background.
The Rwanda deal is the UK government’s latest strategy to restrict unwanted immigration to Great Britain. Susan Pilcher | Shutterstock

Politics of exclusion

Sending asylum seekers to another country strips them of their right, as afforded by the International Refugee Convention, to have their cases considered in the country in which they have chosen to seek refuge. It denies them agency. It doubles their displacement. And it exposes them to prolonged uncertainty and further risk, namely, Rwanda’s worrying human rights record. In 2018, in particular, a dozen refugees were reportedly killed by Rwandan police after protests outside the offices of the UN high commissioner for refugees in Karongi district.

The UK government has said that the scheme will apply mainly to undocumented single men. Its key aim is to tackle the business model of people smuggling.

Research shows, however, that , undocumented migrants are fleeing areas affected by conflict, poverty and environmental crises, among other problems.

Comparing the Rwanda deal, then, with the safe haven opened up to Ukrainian refugees in recent weeks, it is clear that UK immigration policy is biased in terms of race, religion and skill-set.

Further, Johnson has called the Rwanda scheme a prototype, suggesting that it could be replicated elsewhere. There are certainly precedents, including Australia’s infamous arrangements with Nauru and with Papua New Guinea to house asylum seekers on Manus Island These so-called processing centres are effectively places of detention.

The EU, meanwhile, is in talks, via its border and coastguard agency Frontex, with the government of Niger to establish frontier zones on African soil. With the support of the International Organization for Migration, the aim is to keep undocumented people there while their cases are processed.

Protestors in Australia hold up signs decrying the government's detention of refugees offshore.
Precendents for the UK’s Rwanda scheme include the Australian government’s detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. mHolli | Shutterstock

21st-century imperialism

Research shows that plans like these are a strategy of empowerment for already powerful nations. They allow them to offload, back to poorer countries, unwanted migrants, especially those who come from outside of Europe. At the same, they give those richer nations a political and economic foothold in regions of interest.

When Johnson’s government closed down the Department for International Development in 2020, merging it with the Foreign Office, he effectively did away with international aid. International development was, instead, folded into diplomacy – directed by national and international political strategy.

The UK’s offer of £120 million to kickstart this partnership is attractive for Rwanda precisely because it comes under the aegis of development. The country is ranked 160th out of 189 in the 2021 Human Development Index, has long been a recipient of UK foreign aid and international assistance and already hosts nearly 130,000 refugees, 90% of whom remain in refugee camps and transit centres. The scheme would help elevate Rwanda’s international profile as an engaged partner in global migration and refugee governance.

For the UK, meanwhile, it represents yet another business interest in Africa.

At the UK-Africa Investment Summit held in 2020, Johnson emphasised the UK’s ability to “support ventures” and desire to “strengthen partnerships” with Africa. While this growing relationship with the continent is framed in the positive terms of development, the question arises about the UK’s larger intent.

As partnerships go, these are fundamentally unequal. They seek to fortify the UK’s economy by way of foreign investments that bring back more revenue than the original outlay. Investing in poorer countries overseas is financially beneficial to the UK. It is also part of the UK government’s post-Brexit strategy.

Evidence shows that, in the long term, the surplus from such investments inevitably flows back to the richer countries. This perpetuates global structural inequalities. It does little to sustain development.

Africa is both struggling to develop amid myriad environmental, social and economic problems and is rich in resources. Not only does Rwanda have a mining industry in tin ore, gold, tungsten ore and methane, it is also home to Lake Kivu, which is enormously rich in gases and a potential source for energy generation.

The Rwanda scheme presents troubling echoes of the UK’s imperial past: the colonial transportation of slaves and indentured workers across continents and seas; the empowerment of the imperial heartland through the violence that accompanied its historical ravages, for which reparation can never be complete. In a repeat of colonial politics, it tasks Africa yet again with working to the UK’s interests for only short-term financial benefits. In the long term, Africa’s needs remain unmet.The Conversation


Parvati Nair, Professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration Studies,

Queen Mary University of London


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.