Growing up gay in Rwanda was like “living in prison” for Innocent.
As a child, he was singled out by children and adults alike because he was seen as “feminine”. Teachers who should have tried to put a stop to homophobic bullying instead encouraged it, saying Rwandan culture didn’t accept queer people.
Innocent fled Rwanda and arrived in the UK as a refugee. He’s built a new life for himself as an openly gay man. For the first time, he feels free.
That’s why he was so shaken when he heard that the UK government is planning to deporting asylum seekers it deems “illegal” to Rwanda. The plan, launched by previous home secretary Priti Patel, has been denounced as unnecessary, inhumane, racist, and a recipe guaranteed to result in the deaths of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
It has been met with legal challenges – including those that grounded the first scheduled deportation flight – but a change in leadership hasn’t stopped ministers from pushing ahead. Patel’s successor Suella Braverman has been slammed for saying it’s her “dream” and “obsession” to get the plan up and running.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow for LGBTQ+ Rwandans like Innocent – his experience of growing up in the country proved to him how dangerous it can be for queer people.
You feel like no one cares about your life – even God doesn’t like you, even God doesn’t love you.
Innocent knew he was gay by the time he was 13.
“Emotionally it was really challenging because all I wanted was just to change it,” he explains.
As a teenager, Innocent went to a priest to seek guidance about his sexuality. He hoped he would get support, but the response he received was “devastating”.
“At church they were preaching that God is love. I was naive and I was thinking, if God is love and this is a man of God, he’s going to be able to accept it – to at least see me as a human being.”
But the priest had the “opposite reaction” – he told Innocent that his feelings were sinful and that he must change if he wanted to avoid burning in hell.
“You feel like no one cares about your life – even God doesn’t like you, even God doesn’t love you. I felt powerless.”
At that time, Innocent was still reeling from the trauma of living through the Rwandan genocide. Over just 100 days in 1994, around 500,000 to 662,000 people – mostly from the Tutsi minority ethnic group – were murdered – Innocent’s parents were among them.
Because he was an orphan, Innocent was eligible to go to the UK as a refugee at the age of 16. He knew moving away would give him the chance to live openly as a gay man – something he would never be able to do in Rwanda.
“When I arrived in Europe, it was like getting out of hell,” he says.
Innocent has built a life for himself in the UK – he is now an out and proud gay man. He still keeps his sexuality from some of his relatives back home because he knows that attitudes have not changed.
That’s why he was “horrified” when he discovered the UK government was planning on deporting some asylum seekers to Rwanda.
“I was just wondering how that could happen,” he says.
“There’s a lot of evidence that sexual orientation and gender identity is still taboo and the government doesn’t want to do anything about that.
“People are still being bullied, being put in prison, being tortured almost, and rejected by the community wherever they go. That is how it is now for LGBT people who live there.”
If he had a chance to sit down with the prime minister and the home secretary, his message to them would be simple.
“The policy has to change,” Innocent says.
“You can’t do it. You can’t just send people to a place where they will face discrimination. They will be seen as criminals.
“What I would say is just do more research, understand how the LGBT community live in that country. Most of the people there – even some of my friends who are still there – they don’t exist. They live a lie, they get married, they have to lie to the police, they have to lie to their wives. You live a lie your entire life.”
He doesn’t think it’s right for asylum seekers to be sent away as part of the government’s wider effort to deter immigration.
“Even if it worked, do we really want to compromise human rights just to prevent people from coming to the UK? For me, that doesn’t sound like the UK values that I know.”
Rwanda refugee plan carries ‘disproportionately higher risk for LGBTQ+ people’
A spokesperson for Rainbow Migration, an LGBTQ+ asylum advocacy group, noted that the UK government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been held up by legal challenges – but it is still planning flights for this year.
“We see that the risk is disproportionately higher for LGBTQI+ people, as Rwanda is a country from which people like Innocent flee and claim asylum because they are persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the spokesperson said.
While homosexuality is no longer criminalised in Rwanda, same-sex sexual relations is still seen as a taboo issue – public attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people are not kind.
Even the UK government’s own website acknowledges that homosexuality is “frowned on” by many in Rwanda and that LGBTQ+ people may experience “discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities”.
In June, a gay man from Uganda told Africa News that he was “beaten terribly” in Rwanda for king gay, while a trans woman told the publication: “I cannot go anywhere or apply for a job. Not because I am not capable of that, but because of who I am.”
A spokesperson for Rainbow Migration said there is “not much of a screening process that takes place” within the Home Office when a person’s asylum claim is being considered.
“This creates a high risk that they could be sent to Rwanda if the plan is eventually allowed to proceed.”
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for the Home Office said its Rwanda scheme is a “world-leading” programme which will “see those who make dangerous, unnecessary and illegal journeys to the UK relocated to Rwanda”.
“Our assessment concluded that LGBT+ people did not face a real risk of persecution,” the spokesperson said.
“The overall findings were that Rwanda is fundamentally a safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers, including working with the UN Refugee Agency which said the country has a safe and protective environment for refugees.”