'I'm half Welsh and half Rwandan — this is why I'm against the Rwanda Plan'

Bowen Cole from Swansea is half Welsh and half Rwandan and says Rwanda has been judged unfairly. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Bowen Cole from Swansea is half Welsh and half Rwandan. He is aged 17, and believes Rwanda has been judged unfairly because of the UK Government’s plan to deport failed asylum seekers there.

Almost two years after the UK and Rwanda signed an agreement for the UK to deport people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda, the debate over the suitability of the country as such a destination rages.

The Welsh language current affairs programme, Y Byd ar Bedwar, travelled to Rwanda with Bowen to understand more about the country at the centre of the scheme.

"I can see there’s a stigma with Rwanda now, and it makes me so frustrated because this is such a good, peaceful country," said Bowen.

"If [asylum seekers] are sent to Rwanda, nothing is going to happen [to them], nothing bad is going to happen. They are going to be treated like people.

"I believe there are quite a few similarities between Rwanda and Wales, for example the majority of people undermine Wales and Rwanda, they think they know these countries, but they don’t."

Bowen Cole and Y Byd ar Bedwar presenter Siôn Jenkins in Rwanda Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Since the government plans were announced, Bowen says he has experienced judgement over his heritage.

"When I say I’m from Rwanda, people start to question me.

"I never thought I’d live to see the day that I’m judged for coming from Rwanda." 

Under the agreement, designed to deter people from arriving in the UK on small boats, some asylum seekers would be sent to Rwanda to have their claims processed there.

If their claims are successful, they will be granted refugee status and allowed to stay in Rwanda. If their claims are unsuccessful, they could apply to settle in Rwanda on other grounds, or seek asylum in another "safe third country". 

Bowen has mixed feelings about the policy.

"I come from Wales, and I come from Rwanda… if I say I’m against the policy, people will think I hate Rwanda, but, God forbid, I don’t.

"[But] I’m against the policy, because if the [migrants] want to go to the UK, let them go to the UK.

"How would you feel if you ran away from your war-torn country, to a country you thought would be safe, just to be turned away?"

However, Bowen says if the plan goes ahead, those sent to Rwanda have nothing to fear.

"If anyone knows how to take care of migrants, knows what they want, and treats them like people - it’s Rwanda."

Concerns have been raised regarding Rwanda’s ability to accept more refugees.

As of the end of September 2023, Rwanda hosted 135,733 refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced populations. A third of those come from Burundi, a country which shares its border with Rwanda. 

A refugee who arrived in Rwanda from Burundi in 2015 told Y Byd ar Bedwar that he still hasn’t been able to find a job. His identity has been concealed to protect his safety. 

“It’s hard to find a job, I’ve been trying for years," he said. "Many people want you to work for free, and they say they’ll pay you later, but it’s impossible. Finding a job is difficult.

“I get some part-time jobs… it provides me with some small income to help me survive.” 

He said it took him two years to receive refugee status in the country, a process the Rwandan Government says should only take two months. 

"When you arrive in Rwanda, you are given accommodation such as a tent you can live in… and then they investigate you to ensure you are a real refugee.

"It took about two years for the whole process to be completed, and for me to be registered as an official refugee.

"It wasn’t easy, it was a difficult period. I cried a lot… I still think about the situation and I feel sad, but I have to accept it."

Asylum seekers who go to Rwanda from the UK would have a roof over their heads at Hope Hostel, a hotel in north Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. There’s room for 100 people there, and the Rwandan government says they would stay there for three months before moving to more permanent accommodation. 

Lilly Carlisle works for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Rwanda. She’s been supporting refugees in the country for two years.  

“It’s a protracted crisis, the refugees have been here for 10 years plus," she said. "Finding a job is tough. Around 80-90% of refugees here are completely dependent on humanitarian assistance."

Lilly Carlisle Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Lilly believes sending more asylum seekers to Rwanda would pose serious risks for the safety of refugees.

"This is shifting the burden, essentially, from the UK to Rwanda. We think the UK should take responsibility for these asylum seekers in assessing their claims rather than shifting the responsibility to a country like Rwanda who already has a lot to deal with with the existing refugee population.

"You will have, essentially, two different systems dealing with asylum seekers and refugees in the same country. Right now, we do not consider the asylum system safe to bring more people here."

The UK Government's plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda has faced many legal challenges. The UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously in November 2023 that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful. It said genuine refugees sent there would be at risk of being returned to their home countries, where they could face harm. 

Dr Doris Uwicyeza Picard, chief technical advisor for the Rwanda Ministry of Justice, said there is "no such risk for any asylum seekers, not just those relocated from the UK".

Dr Picard was a part of the team responsible for discussing the terms of the agreement with the UK Government, and she played a key role in drafting the legal framework for the plan. 

"We have scaled up [processes] because now we expect an increase in asylum applications, we’ve scaled up capacity, we are reforming our entire asylum process.

"We understand that there [were] concerns that were expressed by the Supreme Court and those have been addressed."

Dr. Doris Uwicyeza Picard Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Responding to the lack of jobs in the country, Dr Picard said" "Unemployment is an issue everywhere and this is where we believe that migration is wealth that is being brought into the country because we’re bringing in wealth of experience and education and skills.

"The more people there are, the more jobs there are. There are not just job openings waiting for people to fill them, a job is created by the people."

When challenged on the length of time it takes for asylum seekers to receive refugee status, Dr Picard said: "It usually takes on average two months to get your residence, to get the refugee status."

In response to the Supreme Court's ruling in November that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful, the UK Government introduced a new bill to make clear in UK law that Rwanda is a safe country. The legislation must be approved by both Houses of Parliament, however the Lords defeated it in early March.

Opponents of the plan are concerned it places the UK at risk of breaching international law commitments, undermines the jurisdiction of the courts, will lead to substantial taxpayer costs, fails to provide safe and legal routes for refugees and does not include measures to tackle people smugglers.

The bill has returned to the Commons for considerations of Lords amendments on Monday, 18 March.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "As the home secretary and prime minister have said, we remain committed to getting flights to Rwanda off the ground once the bill and treaty are in place. 

"We have a strong relationship with the Rwandans and will continue to work closely with them to operationalise the policy."

Watch Y Byd ar Bedwar at 8pm Monday, 18 March, on S4C, S4C Clic and BBC iPlayer.

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