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Rwandan involvement in Congo’s conflict raises questions about UK’s asylum partnership

In the tumultuous region of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a recent report by Bloomberg journalists Simon Marks and Neil Munshi has unveiled alarming details of Rwandan military involvement with the armed group M23, highlighting a complex layer of international relations and human rights concerns. This revelation comes at a critical time for the United Kingdom as it navigates its controversial Rwanda scheme for processing asylum seekers, raising significant ethical and policy questions as to whether Rwanda is the beacon of human rights protection the UK government claims it is.

According to the Bloomberg report, Rwandan forces have been spotted operating 12 miles inside Congo’s North Kivu province, utilizing a Chinese-made Type 92 Yitian vehicle to launch a surface-to-air missile at a United Nations drone. The soldiers, identified by their uniforms by Western military analysts, are purportedly fighting alongside the M23 rebel group—a militia linked to numerous atrocities and human rights violations.

The possible involvement of Rwandan troops in foreign territories where their government vehemently denies activity, and supporting groups it claims to disavow, marks a significant escalation in the conflict that has simmered since the mid-1990s. This conflict, deeply rooted in ethnic tensions and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, has now intensified, reaching a peak of violence not seen in at least a decade.

The M23, primarily composed of ethnic Tutsis from Congo, alleges to protect its people but has been accused by the UN and multiple governments, including the US and the EU, of committing war crimes. Rwandan support for M23 has been a contentious issue, with international calls for Kigali to withdraw its backing repeatedly dismissed by the Rwandan government.

This military engagement in the DRC is particularly problematic given Rwanda’s current partnership with the UK. In April 2022, the UK government signed the Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, which controversially involves transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing. Under the agreement, those seeking asylum in the UK could be settled in Rwanda or another country, but they will not return to the UK.

The UK’s rationale for the partnership hinges on Rwanda’s capacity to manage asylum processes effectively and humanely—a premise now under scrutiny due to Rwanda’s actions in Congo. Critics of the partnership argue that Rwanda’s involvement in such a conflict, marked by accusations of human rights abuses, directly contradicts the responsibilities it has been tasked with under the agreement with the UK. In 2018, at least 13 Congolese refugees were killed by Rwandan police in a protest.

Human rights organizations and observers have pointed out the inherent contradictions in the UK’s policy. By outsourcing asylum responsibilities to a country actively engaged in a complex and brutal conflict in another nation, the UK risks violating the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This convention stipulates that asylum seekers should not be expelled or returned to any country where they might face threats to their life or freedom.

Furthermore, the recent escalations in the DRC, facilitated in part by Rwandan involvement, have led to significant humanitarian crises. The region of North Kivu has seen a surge in displaced persons, with hundreds of thousands of civilians forced to flee their homes amid continuous fighting. Many have ended up in overcrowded and under-resourced camps, where access to basic necessities and protection from further violence is scarce.

In these camps, reports of serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence and exploitation, are rampant. Non-governmental organizations operating in the area, such as Doctors Without Borders, have documented alarming rates of violence, particularly affecting women and children. The conditions in these camps, exacerbated by the ongoing conflict, raise severe concerns about the safety and well-being of displaced persons—concerns that are directly relevant to Rwanda’s capacity to handle asylum seekers under the UK partnership.

As the UK House of Lords deliberates on the legality of the Rwanda scheme, following a ruling by the Court of Appeal that deemed the policy potentially unlawful due to the risk of human rights violations, these revelations add a layer of urgency to the proceedings. The government’s decision will not only impact the lives of thousands of asylum seekers but also influence the UK’s standing in international human rights advocacy.

In light of these developments, it is imperative for UK policymakers and the international community to reconsider the implications of externalizing asylum responsibilities to a nation implicated in foreign conflicts and human rights abuses. The Rwanda scheme, intended as a solution to the UK’s asylum processing challenges, now poses significant ethical and legal challenges that could undermine the country’s commitment to protecting vulnerable populations.

As the situation unfolds, the international community must keep a vigilant eye on Rwanda’s actions in the DRC and the broader implications for asylum policies and human rights standards globally. The resolution of this issue will not only affect those directly involved but also set precedents for how nations address asylum and migration in an increasingly interconnected and complex international landscape.