Why Boris Johnson is visiting Rwanda

The British prime minister is expected to avoid discussions on deporting UK asylum seekers at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie Johnson arrive in Kigali, Rwanda. Getty Images
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UK prime minister Boris Johnson is planning to avoid visiting the accommodation in Kigali where migrants deported from the UK would be sent under the faltering policy, so why is he travelling to the East African nation?

The first flight removing people to Rwanda was due to take off last week, but was grounded by successful legal challenges before a full hearing on the scheme’s legality in UK courts.

The policy is one element of a £120 million ($147m) deal with Kigali, but has been widely criticised, in part because of concerns about Rwanda’s human rights record.

“You will know that the prime minister’s time is always limited and to make time to do that he would therefore have to leave elements of the programme whereby he’s working with a unique set of world leaders on quite crucial issues,” his spokesman said.

“We think that the best use of his time for this short period he’s in Rwanda is to dedicate himself to some of the issues that will be raised at the summit and to work with other world leaders on some of those issues we’ve talked about, not least Ukraine and global security.”

Downing Street said it was likely that Mr Johnson would discuss the plans with Rwandan President Paul Kagame but stressed there was a “host of other issues to discuss”.

What is Chogm?

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, starting on June 26, typically takes place every two years but is being hosted in Kigali after a delay forced by the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a chance for the leaders of the 54 Commonwealth nations, most of them former British colonies, to discuss their shared interests and make decisions about their future.

So it is somewhat of a coincidence that Mr Johnson is there while his asylum policy is in disarray thanks to a European Court of Human Rights decision, ahead of a full ruling in the UK.

Prince Charles is in the capital Kigali representing Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the Commonwealth.

What will the PM discuss with Prince Charles?

Mr Johnson will hold talks with the Prince of Wales in Rwanda after the heir to the throne’s reported criticism of the policy sending asylum seekers there on a one-way ticket.

The meeting between him and Prince Charles will be the first time they have spoken since the service for the queen’s platinum jubilee.

It was later reported that Prince Charles has privately described the policy of sending asylum seekers who arrive in the UK after unauthorised journeys as “appalling” .

“They are due to meet. Obviously they will encounter each other during the summit but they are due to have a bilateral discussion as well,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, and Prince Charles attend the dedication ceremony of the new national UK Police Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, central England, in July 2021. AFP

What is the PM hoping to achieve?

Mr Johnson wants to focus on tackling the food and energy insecurity caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with some Commonwealth nations feared to be particularly vulnerable.

Other key issues he wants to discuss are green economic growth, boosting girls’ education and increasing trade opportunities.

As well as the banquet and wider talks with Commonwealth leaders, Mr Johnson will hold one-on-one chats with key allies.

What else will happen at the summit?

They may not be the most attention-grabbing, but there are key decisions to be made about the future of the political association.

The next secretary general must be chosen, and Mr Johnson hopes to remove the incumbent, Labour peer Baroness Scotland, who is running for a second term.

He supports Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith, and UK officials are confident he will get his way.

Mr Johnson said Ms Johnson Smith will have the “vast experience and support to unite our unique family of nations and seize the opportunities ahead”.

Officials are privately critical of Baroness Scotland, questioning whether she has provided effective or unified leadership.

Leaders are also expected to admit a new member state, Togo, while it is possible Gabon could also join. The UK backs adding both to the Commonwealth family.

Who else is accompanying Boris Johnson on the visit?

The prime minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson, will join him at the summit and is expected to take part in a programme of events for partners.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will also be there, as will Alok Sharma, the president of the Cop26 climate summit.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie arrive to attend the Platinum Party at Buckingham Palace on June 4 as part of Queen Elizabeth II's platinum jubilee celebrations. AFP

What is the backdrop to the visit?

Mr Johnson hoped the Rwanda policy would prevent the at-times deadly crossings of the English Channel made by thousands of people crammed into small boats each year.

He hoped the deal brokered with Kigali by Home Secretary Priti Patel would provide a disincentive for the journeys, while those who do make the crossings could find asylum in Rwanda if approved.

The government always knew it would attract legal challenges, and those challenges ultimately prevented the first flight from taking off last week.

Ministers had anticipated about 130 people to be on board but lawsuits reduced this to only seven or fewer on the day of take-off.

Then the European Court of Human Rights granted an interim injunction barring the removal of an Iraqi asylum seeker until a decision on the legality of the government’s policy is made in UK courts.

The court in Strasbourg removed two others from the plane, while the Supreme Court granted injunctions preventing the immediate removal of three others.

Now the government is trying to introduce a Bill of Rights that would confirm that measures such as the one issued over the Rwanda policy are not binding on UK courts.

Who is Paul Kagame?

Mr Kagame has been lauded by the international community for his role in ending the 1994 genocide during the civil war.

Hutu extremists slaughtered about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in only 100 days.

That came to an end when Mr Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front rebel group seized Kigali.

But his regime has since been accused of political repression, assassinations and imprisoning critics.

Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrants rights director, Steve Valdez-Symonds, accused the government of “effectively supporting the continued repression of people in Rwanda under president Kagame’s regime” with the asylum policy.

“No country should be casting off its asylum responsibilities on to another, still less to a country such as Rwanda with a troubling human rights record alongside existing large-scale asylum responsibilities of its own,” Mr Valdez-Symonds said.

“In recent years, Rwanda has been the scene of enforced disappearances, numerous allegations of torture, excessive use of force by the police, and serious violations of the right to a fair trial and the right to free expression.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman said he was expected to “raise human rights issues as he has done in the past”.

“We want Rwanda to uphold and champion the Commonwealth values, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights," the official said.

"And we want due process for all those in detention and fair and transparent application of the rule of law."

Mr Kagame may want to ask Mr Johnson why no asylum flights have arrived in Kigali two months after the deal was signed.

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Updated: June 23, 2022, 7:05 AM
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