A Home Office minister attempted to defend Rwanda’s LGBT+ and human rights record amid backlash to Boris Johnson’s plan to give asylum seekers a one-way ticket to the African nation.
Prime minister Boris Johnson announced on Thursday (14 April) plans for the UK to ‘offshore’ many asylum seekers to processing centres in Rwanda.
Tom Pursglove, junior minister for justice and tackling illegal migration, was confronted with the Foreign Office’s own travel advice for LGBT+ people going to Rwanda by Sky News on Friday (15 April).
The department warns that while there is no law forbidding same-sex relations, homosexuality is “frowned on by many” in Rwanda and LGBT+ people experience “discrimination and abuse”.
“That is the advice given to gay people in this country from the Foreign Office, just round the corner from you,” said host Niall Paterson.
Pursglove stumbled over his words: “We have this, I have to say, some appalling stereotypes thrown around in the last 24 hours since this announcement.
“The fact is Rwanda has made huge strides forward over the last three decades. It has a female-majority parliament, it has an anti-discrimination law that runs right through its constitution.”
Tory plans asylum plan will ‘result in gay refugees being deported to death’
Pursglove was again confronted with a 2021 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the practice of “round-ups” by Rwandan officials.
The non-profit spoke to nine LGBT+ people as well as sex workers, homeless children and others who were detained by officials to “clear up” the streets ahead of a high-profile Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Detainees were held in overcrowded rooms without adequate food, water and healthcare and beaten by guards at a transit centre in Kigali.
Gay and trans detainees told HRW they were accused of “not representing Rwandan values”.
One trans woman said: “Police said we were cursed, and asked how we could behave in this way, having sex with people of the same sex as us. They said we’re delinquents and put us in that room. But in the room, we were badly beaten by other detainees and police did nothing despite our cries.”
One detainee was arrested after kissing his same-sex partner in a bar. Another gay detainee said he was beaten and told he needed to be “rehabilitated.”
While same-sex relations are not illegal, there are no legal protections for LGBT+ people aside from a general anti-discrimination measure.
LGBT+ Rwandas have reported having to hide who they are to avoid being beaten, losing their jobs, being evicted from their homes and more.
Similar “round-ups” have been recorded before other high-profile events, with widespread reports of authorities arresting queer people on charges of “deviant behaviour”.
In 2020, one trans woman told Vice that she was arrested while making her way home from a party. Officers falsely claimed she was homeless and selling drugs, taking her to Gikondo Transit Center – where she was detained for six months.
“They directly cut your hair, they remove your clothes, and see who you are. They put me in front of 400 people and removed my clothes,” the woman, Bella, said. “They said, ‘See how he’s behaving, and he has a penis.’”
Bella said that she was held in a dark, dirty cell known as “the cat box”, where she was forced to urinate and defecate on herself. She was told “to become a man”, beaten multiple times, and raped by fellow detainees at least three separate times.
This reputation is why LGBT+ rights advocates have reacted in horror to the UK government’s Rwanda asylum proposal.
Among them is Dr S Chelvan, head of immigration and public law at the firm 33 Bedford Row, who told PinkNews that if enacted, the plan “will result in genuine gay refugees being deported to death”.
“Rwanda’s human rights record includes forced disappearances and killings, and even today’s UK [Foreign Office] travel advice warns LGBT+ travellers of state-sanctioned abuse and discrimination,” Chelvan said.
“This government has lost its moral compass, and as we have seen in the past few days has no respect for the rule of law.
“The British public has shown with both Afghanistan and Ukraine we are a country that provides sanctuary and welcomes refugees into, and to stay in the UK.”
Home secretary Priti Patel visited Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on Thursday to sign the agreement.
The plan would relocate thousands of migrants and offer them the option of seeking settlement in countries other than Britain, being forced back to their home country or staying permanently in Rwanda.
Trying to justify a policy that LGBT+ and human rights activists have dubbed “evil“, Pursglove said Rwanda has a “rich and proud history” of providing sanctuary to asylum seekers.
He claimed that the decision of whether to fly asylum seekers out would be taken on a “case by case” process.
Asked by Good Morning Britain whether he would happily live in Rwanda, he said he would only visit.
According to a Home Office fact sheet on the Migration and Economic Development Partnership, any asylum seeker who is “inadmissible to the UK asylum system” and can be “removed” would automatically be flown away to a “safe third-world country”.
Only if the person cannot be “removed” would their claim be considered by the Home Office.
Whether the policy will be implemented remains uncertain. This week, parliament will again consider the Nationality and Borders Bill that would intensify the Conservative government’s already hardline immigration policies. Johnson has admitted that he expects the plan to face legal challenges.
Given that the proposal is not yet law, Chelvan called on the House of Lords and judges “to make sure our obligations to the Refugee Convention in line with our proud history and tradition in the UK to provide sanctuary to refugees is not broken by our broken politicians.”