Denmark is in talks with Rwanda about setting up a new procedure for transferring asylum seekers to the East African country, mirroring a similar move by the United Kingdom announced earlier this month. Denmark, which has gained notoriety in the last decade for its increasingly harsh immigration policies, passed a law last year that allows refugees arriving on Danish soil to be moved to asylum centres in a partner country.
But the Nordic nation, which drew the anger of human rights advocates, the United Nations and the European Commission over the move, had yet to find a partner country at that time. “Our dialogue with the Rwandan government includes a mechanism for the transfer of asylum seekers,” Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye said in an emailed statement to Reuters on 20 April. The deal would aim to “ensure a more dignified approach than the criminal network of human traffickers that characterises migration across the Mediterranean today,” he added.
The week before Copenhagen’s announcement, the United Kingdom said it planned to relocate thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, in a new deal aimed at smashing people-smuggling networks and stemming the flow of migrants. “Denmark has not yet struck a deal with Rwanda”, the minister said, but immigration speakers in parliament had been summoned to a meeting on the matter on Thursday next week. The government needs parliamentary backing for a potential deal with Rwanda.
The series of policies being rolled out or considered by various countries is the clearest indicator yet that Europe is no longer willing to welcome, or pretend to welcome migrants, many of whom are trying to escape would-be despots. This is even though the language is couched to scapegoat “illegal immigrants” for domestic political audiences.
Before Denmark and the UK, the European Union has been pushing similar initiatives off the radar. When Sudan’s former strong man, Omar Al Bashir was in power, the EU pumped millions of euros to his government in “technical assistance” to prevent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa from utilising the country as a migration transit route. Much of the money went to the Rapid Support Forces known as the Janjaweed who in turn detained and tortured asylum seekers.
This initiative has not quite ended and is part of a comprehensive migration management strategy which is being deployed both home and abroad. Brussels has been inexorably pushing the use of technology on its borders, whether bought by the EU’s border force, Frontex or financed for member states through EU sources. In 2018, it predicted that the European security market would grow to €128 billion (₦80 trillion) by 2020, with arms and tech companies set to be major beneficiaries of a policy which they heavily lobbied for. The anti-immigrant actions of illiberal democracies as important EU members (Poland and Hungary) have also served as an important boon for Western European allies, and politicians in those states – from Austria and Denmark to France and Italy – are increasingly shifting to the right to remain in government and fend off a resurgence of far-right parties.
Mention must be made of why Rwanda appears to be a very eager participant in these schemes: in 2013, it signed a secret arrangement with Israel to receive up to 4000 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who Israel claimed left voluntarily. Although the Israeli Supreme Court has since ruled that arrangement illegal, it was long after the transfer was made. Even more worrying is that of the 4000 persons transferred to Rwanda, almost all were immediately smuggled out of the country to Uganda, Sudan or South Sudan, often to recommence a treacherous journey to Europe via the Mediterranean. It can be inferred that Israel paid the Rwandan government to receive asylum seekers in the same manner that Denmark and the UK are considering.
It does look like a win-win for the governments, with Rwanda turning the dealings in human bodies into a veritable revenue stream and countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark getting rid of refugees they are not willing to take. In summary, this will be a net negative for supporting nascent African democracies: if countries in the West who have traditionally insisted on democratic values and human rights are willing to shy away from these values to make deals with autocrats (not that commitments to those values had stopped interactions with autocracies and autocratic democracies in the past), it means the era of emphasis on a values-based diplomatic engagement is over. For the average African dealing with the sceptre of heavy-handed treatment by autocrats or adverse economic conditions at the hand of democratically elected ones, the message is written in clear ink: you are on your own.