[ANALYSIS] A Brief History of Rwanda: Understanding the UK-Rwanda Partnership Through a Historical Lens

Clara Browne-Amorim
People in Rwanda attend a candlelit vigil for the 25th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide of the Batutsi.
Source: Yasuyoshi Chiba/ AFP/ Getty Images

The UK government announced this summer a bilateral partnership with Rwanda in which people seeking asylum in the UK will no longer be able to, instead being extradited to Rwanda to await their asylum decisions, and then remaining in Rwanda thereafter if their asylum is accepted. While this policy proposal has received plentiful criticism in the UK, ranging from activists to legal challenges, this analysis will instead focus on Rwanda.

This analysis wishes to introduce a brief history of Rwanda, in the belief that knowledge about a state’s past helps to elucidate its present. It will conclude with an analysis of the UK-Rwanda partnership in this historical context asking whether this is a partnership that will really benefit Rwanda.

A Brief History of Rwanda

The Republic of Rwanda is a small, densely-populated, land-locked country located in the Great Rift Valley where the African Great Lakes lie. Rwanda was an independent African kingdom well into the 19th century, and by this time was ruled by mwami (“king”) Rwabugiri who conducted decades of military expansion and consolidation, coming to control the majority of what is today recognized as Rwanda.

Rwanda, having been already claimed by Germany during the Scramble for Africa, was first invaded by Europeans in 1893, and then became Ruanda-Urundi in 1916 under Belgium. Whilst Germany had imposed a cash tax on Rwanda, Belgium introduced forced labor and commodity crops, mainly coffee, which was extremely unpopular. This led to a Rwandan diaspora of hundreds of thousands to the neighboring British Protectorate of Uganda, which did not have the same policies under the sub-imperialist Buganda administrators.

In 1931, with the rise of eugenics in Europe, Belgium claimed that Tutsis, a Rwandan ethnicity, had Caucasian ancestry and were superior to Hutus, another Rwandan ethnicity to which the majority of Rwandans belonged. Tutsis had historically been the main ethnicity of the Rwandan aristocracy, and Hutus had made up the majority of the peasantry. The Belgians consolidated this categorization; they issued Rwandans with ethnic identity cards, undertook phrenological experiments, and claimed there were physical differences between the two ethnicities, and ‘church, school, administration and the army were organised around the assumed racial superiority of the Batutsi’ (the prefix ba- refers to a group of people) (Hintjens, 1999, p. 253).

After WWII, Ruanda-Urundi became a UN trust territory; whilst Belgium retained administrative authority, democratic reforms were made under the ruling mwamis. Pan-Africanism swept through Central Africa in the 1950s, inciting the 1959 Rwandan Revolution. In 1960, the Belgian government held municipal elections in Ruanda-Urundi, which the Hutu majority won, electing in Hutu representatives and ending the centuries-long Tutsi monarchy. The UN urged that the Belgian government divide the kingdom into the separate countries of Rwanda and Burundi and it became independent in 1961. Bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi, the country has since had a tumultuous history, playing a poignant part in the formation of international norms around peacekeeping and UN intervention.

The Genocide and the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis

This shoe was found on a body after exhumation. The victim was wearing it when he was killed.
Source: The Genocide Archive of Rwanda

The Rwandan genocide occurred in 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War between the Hutu Rwandan Armed Forces, representing the government, and the rebelling Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. In Rwanda, ‘racialist ideologies mainly served as a mask or pseudo-justification for the more fundamental goal of regime survival under conditions of sharp socioeconomic crisis and growing political opposition’ (Hintjens, 1999, p. 242). At the height of the war, a plane carrying the Hutu President of Rwanda Juvenal Habyarimana, and the President of Burundi was shot down, igniting ethnic tensions across Rwanda and initiating the genocide of the Tutsi people: there were ‘as many as 1 million people dead in 100 days’ (Hintjens, 1999, p. 276).

After the genocide, the Great Lakes refugee crisis began. For the purposes of clarity, this analysis will quickly define the key concepts it will be handling (all definitions are sourced from the UNHCR). Firstly, an asylum seeker is someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed; a refugee is a person who has fled war, violence, conflict, or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country; an internally displaced person is someone who is motivated by the same reasons as a refugee to move, but does not cross international borders; and a migrant is someone who has changed their country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for their migration.

The Great Lakes Refugee crisis was described by Wilkinson as a ‘refugee exodus of biblical proportions’ (1997). More than 200,000 Rwandans crossed into Tanzania in 24 hours following the genocide, a small portion of the total 2,000,000 refugees that left Rwanda. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimated at the time that ‘there were over two million refugees in neighbouring countries, including some 1.2 million in Zaire (now DRC), 580,000 in Tanzania, 270,000 in Burundi and 10,000 in Uganda’.

Significantly, one of the largest refugee camps in Zaire faced so many problems that the situation eventually led to the First Congo War. Summarised by a UNHCR Report:

The Zairean central government’s authority in eastern Zaire, far from the capital Kinshasa, was weak. The Rwandan génocidaires had allies in the local administration in the Kivus and ex-FAR officers established effective control of the camps. Relief workers were in no position to confront them. Tents at Goma were grouped by secteur, commune, sous-préfecture, and préfecture, in a mirror image of the administrative organization of the country the refugees had just left.’

The presence of armed Hutu groups (called the Interahamwe) in refugee camps, taking control of the one in Zaire, was a humanitarian disaster. Militarised refugee camps were not new but proved to be an issue that the UNHCR and host governments have continuously been unable to resolve. As such, Article II.6 of the 1969 Refugee Convention of the Organisation of African Unity states: ‘For reasons of security, countries of asylum shall, as far as possible, settle refugees at a reasonable distance from the frontier of their country of origin’. However today, this is, unfortunately, still not the case. The Second Congo War ended in 2000 when the final RPF troops left the Congo. Militias continued to cause violence and displacement until 2007 when the last militias were disarmed with a large-scale effort aided by the UN.

Rwanda today still bears the deep scars of the genocide. It has a dynamic population, with an average age of 19 and around 120,00 immigrants in 2021 as well as a large number of emigrants, 108,000 in 2010 and 45,000 in 2017. Its economy suffered heavily after the genocide and the mass diaspora but has since strengthened, mostly relying on subsistence agriculture with the same cash crops introduced by Belgium: coffee and tea. An estimated 90% of the working population farms, but the reliance on agricultural products makes the economy vulnerable to price shifts. Contemporary governments discourage distinctions between the Bahutu, Batutsi, and Batwa ethnicities of Rwandans, and these categories are no longer included on identity cards or the census.

The Refugee Crisis Today

Benako Refugee Camp, Tanzania 1996. Source: KT News

The current refugee crisis is of a complex, global nature. The UNHCR reports that there were 82.4 million asylum seekers at the end of 2020, and according to IDMC director Alexandra Bilak, ‘2022 is looking bleak’ (UNHCR, 2022). 86% were hosted by developing countries, 73% were hosted by neighbouring countries and 68% originated from just five countries (Syria 6.7M, Venezuela 4M, Afghanistan 2.6M, Myanmar 1.1M, South Sudan 2.2M, Other 7.9M). Children accounted for 42% of the asylum seeker population, despite making up only 30% of the global population. Five countries hosted at least 1.2 million refugees: Turkey 3.7M, Colombia 1.7M, Pakistan 1.4M, Uganda 1.4M, Germany 1.2M. In the UK, as of mid-2021 there were 135,912 resident in the UK, and 83,489 pending asylum cases. Rwanda, similarly, is hosting 127,163 refugees as of September 2021. However, the population density of the UK is 281 people per Km2 and its 2021 Q4 GDP was £564,812 million whereas Rwanda’s population density is 525 per Km2 and its 2021 Q4 GDP was Frw 2,931 billion, translating to GDP £2,279,266.

Refugee Statistics 2020
Source: UNHCR, Figures at a Glance

UK-Rwanda Bilateral Partnership

The UK-Rwanda bilateral partnership was announced in the UK by a Memorandum of Understanding published on the government website. Its basic tenets are:

‘Faciliat[ing] cooperation between the Participants in order to contribute to the prevention and combating of illegally facilitated and unlawful cross border migration by establishing a bilateral asylum partnership in which Rwanda commits to receive asylum seekers from the UK, to consider their claims for asylum, giving effect to their rights under international law through the Rwanda domestic asylum system and arranging for the settlement in Rwanda of those recognised as refugees or otherwise requiring protection.’

There are, first of all, several logistical issues with this partnership. The UK has agreed to pay Rwanda GBP £120 million for ‘economic development and growth, and will pick up operational costs of the program, along with accommodation and integration expenses’ (Beirens et al., 2022), in effect subcontracting its border enforcement process. This is a large economic incentive for Rwanda, considering its GDP, and will be a boost to its hospitality industry, as documented by the BBC.

However, in this article, there are a total of 102 rooms at the Hallmark residence in Kigali’s (Rwanda’s capital) Nyarugunga suburb. A further 30 furnished 3- and 4-bedroom bungalows are mentioned, complete with gates and gardens. There is one other hostel named, the Hope Hostel, that will accommodate asylum seekers. This really evidences the actual capacity of Rwanda to host the UK’s asylum seekers; analysts have estimated it has enough space for about 100 people at a time, and to process up to 500 people a year. In 2021, 28,526 asylum seekers entered the UK via boat over the English Channel.

Furthermore, Rwanda’s partnership is in conflict with the stance of the African Union (AU). Previously, the AU supported the construction of permanent structures for an Emergency Transit Mechanism in cooperation with the UNHCR to temporarily accommodate over 900 Libyan refugees, over half of which have now been relocated to Sweden, Canada, Norway, France and Belgium. However, when Denmark announced last year a highly similar deal to the UK’s, the AU labelled ‘such attempts to stem out migration from Africa to Europe xenophobic and completely unacceptable … it’s all about sending a deterrent to asylum seekers … anyone who is trying to flee repression in Africa is going to be horrified at being sent to Rwanda’ (Fleming, 2022).

In sum, Rwanda’s ability to accommodate and process the number of asylum seekers required by the UK is disputable. The sentiments of the AU echo many of the criticisms levelled by activists and legal bodies in the UK. It is difficult to see why the UK did not want to offer a tired-and-tested programme such as the Emergency Transit Mechanism if it feels its borders are that overwhelmed by the current rate of asylum seekers; in comparison to Germany’s 1.1M accommodated refugees, the UK’s numbers are minor. This certainly would have achieved the economic development partnership that the two parties desire. However, as the AU states, ‘it’s all about sending a deterrent’; the UK has a political motive in mind, and some asylum-seekers are seeing this partnership as ‘Priti Patel’s Fantasy’. As summarised by Bsmah:

‘If asylum seekers had a choice and were offered a legal route, they wouldn’t risk their lives taking a dangerous journey to seek safety. I can’t believe that the UK claims that it is at the forefront of human rights, promotes individual liberties and the rule of law and equality, yet has a brutal immigration system, and implements such an evil plan … The plan is discriminatory and racist at its core. It targets a particular age group and gender to deport to Rwanda. Even after they are granted refugee status, the UK will not receive them; like they are not worthy of living here … I don’t know when our sufferings will end. We, asylum seekers, are treated as a second class with no rights. Living years without basic rights such as the right to work is not easy. I believe the government’s primary goal is to make asylum seeker’s lives unbearable.’


Helen M. Hintjens, ‘Explaining the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda’, The Journal of Modern African Studies 37:2 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999)

Ray Wilkinson, Refugee Magazine Issue 110 Crisis in the Great Lakes (UNHCR, 1997) https://www.unhcr.org/uk/publications/refugeemag/3b6925384/refugees-magazine-issue-110-crisis-great-lakes-cover-story-heart-darkness.html

Hanne Beirens, Samuel Davidoff-Gore, ‘The UK-Rwanda Agreement Represents another Blow to Territorial Asylum’, Commentaries (Migration Policy Institute, 2022) https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/uk-rwanda-asylum-agreement

Lucy Fleming, UK asylum deal: Is Rwanda a land of safety or fear? (BBC News, 2022) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-61111915

Bsmah, Rwanda: Priti Patel’s Fantasy, Our Reality (Refugee Action, 2022) https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/rwanda-priti-patels-fantasy-our-reality/

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[ANALYSIS] A Brief Histor…

by Clara Browne-Amorim time to read: 9 min