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Rwanda plan is not only bad for asylum-seekers

06 May 2022

It will place an intolerable burden on the country’s people — and its Church, argues David Bagnall

FOUR weeks ago to the day, before any of us had even heard of the “UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership”, I was at a confirmation service in the small rural parish of Gashora, in southern Rwanda. Having been lucky enough to attend many church services in Rwanda, I had never been to one quite so exuberantly joyful. Singing filled the air as the Bishop and I pulled up in his four-wheel drive, and we were practically carried aloft into the small dusty church on a wave of well over 1000 people.

No fewer than 170 people, from teenagers to pensioners, were confirmed during the course of the four-hour service. At the end, the Bishop was presented with a cow by the congregation — a symbolic and precious Rwandan gift — in appreciation for his coming. Standing there at the front of the church next to the Bishop, I felt a profound sense of what it means to be a member of a global Church. “This Church is your Church,” the Bishop said to me, and he meant it.

As we were driving back to Kigali later that day, the road took us alongside a vast camp comprising countless low-lying buildings, enclosed by a high barbed-wire fence. A fellow priest in the car informed me that it was something called a “refugee camp transit centre”. Briefly puzzled by this, I made a mental note to look into it later, but reflected dimly that it was unlikely that I would be able to find any useful information about it. After all, I thought, who in the UK has even heard of the small rural village of Gashora in southern Rwanda? The Home Secretary, it turns out.

On my return to the UK a few days later, it was surreal to find Rwanda dominating the headlines, and even the (formerly) obscure little Gashora popping up in editorials and opinion columns. And this is no small point; for it is precisely the obscurity of places such as Gashora which highlights the true absurdity of the British Government’s scheme to send asylum-seekers there.

David BagnallThe church in the village of Gashora, in southern Rwanda

MANY critics — not least in these pages (Leader comment, 22 April) — have pointed to the searing injustice of sending the already traumatised and travel-weary people who wash up on our shores thousands of miles away to Rwanda; and they are right to do so. The scheme truly “cannot”, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, “stand the judgement of God” (News, 22 April). But it is not asylum-seekers alone who will bear the weight of the scheme’s injustice.

Gashora is poor — seriously poor. Wages are low, work is scarce, and, in a country that is roughly one third of the size of Scotland, but with almost three times as many people, access to land is at an absolute premium. What is more, despite Rwanda’s commitment to creating a “post-ethnic” society in the wake of the genocide, field data suggest that ethnic tensions remain high in the country, not least where access to land and power are concerned. Furthermore, the tension that bubbles away beneath the surface shows serious signs of boiling over in the near future. “We’re sitting on a volcano,” as one Rwandan put it to me.

Much of the burden for all this, of course, falls on the Church. One priest, Tharcisse, who I met that day, for instance, not only presides over an enormous congregation packed into a tiny building, but has recently had to convert the grounds around her church into crops, to keep that congregation fed. She is a single woman in her fifties, and the community gathered around her depends on her almost entirely; her situation is far from unique. This is the reality — the reality of people such as Tharcisse — into which our Government wishes to send those people whom we are apparently unable to accommodate.

THE point at stake is that the UK Government’s resettlement scheme cannot stand the judgement of God not only because of the further misery that it will inflict on those poor souls who are already seeking refuge, but also because of the intolerable burden that it will place on the Rwandan people.

For those of us who consider ourselves to belong to a global Anglican Communion, this is no small point. If the resettlement scheme goes ahead, the burden will fall ultimately — as it always does — on the poorest. And, in a country such as Rwanda, in which so many depend on the Church for their very subsistence, the burden placed on our brothers and sisters will be significant.

The UK is ten times the size of Rwanda, its population density is half the size, and its GDP is more than 300 times as large. Yet, in the end, it will be people such as Tharcisse who will pay the price for our lack of compassion. If the Anglican Communion means anything, then, it surely means that we cannot support such a scheme.

The Revd David Bagnall is Assistant Curate of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, and Assistant Chaplain of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he is working on a doctoral thesis on the Anglican Church of Rwanda.

Read more on this story in this week’s Press column here

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