Global migration system is broken. Here is why

Sanny Ntayombya

What you need to know:

Is the Rwanda-UK partnership perfect? Maybe not. But let’s talk about real alternatives. What are they? Can we have that conversation? Or shall we continue to behave like children, shouting and throwing our toys out of the pram.

The visit of UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman has certainly grabbed a few headlines across the world. Most of them about the ‘cruelty’ of her government’s plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda, instead of housing, feeding and clothing them and others about Rwanda’s unsuitability as a potential home for migrants from all over the developing world.

None of the negative headlines was surprising to me because of the way the entire issue was framed, that is, poor, huddled masses from conflict zones were being denied entry into the UK (as was their right) and sent to the poverty-stricken wasteland that was Rwanda to suffer fresh trauma and indignities. Now, if that was actually the case, and not a matter of framing, I would have agreed with CNN contributor Ika Ferrer Gotić when she tweeted: “Treating refugees like ‘waste people’ is abhorrent, wherever they end up.”

However, in my opinion, the entire issue isn’t being discussed in a sober manner. There are certain facts that we have to acknowledge. First of all, millions of people are forced to flee conflict in their home countries and these people need to be protected by the international community.

Secondly, millions of people are looking for economic prospects; jobs and better incomes outside their native countries. And the way the global economic system is set up, most of these economic opportunities are found in Western Europe and North America. These are two different topics and we are doing ourselves a disservice when we attempt to conflate them.

As many other Rwandans, I too was born a refugee. My grandparents fled Rwanda as a result of the 1959 crisis and until 1994, they lived in different refugee camps in western Uganda. They fled the country in terror and then settled in the first place that offered them succour. They raised their children there, with some assistance from the UNHCR as well as other donor organisations, and created some kind of life for themselves. I cannot pretend to say that their life was easy, because it wasn’t, but they persevered and survived. And as soon as the guns fell silent in Kigali, they collected all their belongings and went home.

When they fled, all those years ago, they didn’t skip from country to country, picking and choosing which one tickled their fancy. No, they settled down as soon as their lives weren’t in danger. What we are seeing today would be extremely foreign to them. People fleeing conflicts aren’t settling in the first safe place. ‘Vulnerable’ people are treating the refugee system like a buffet line. They want to pick and choose which safe country is most ‘palatable’. And that is something that I cannot get behind.

When Yolande Makolo, the Rwandan Government spokesperson, called the international system “broken,” I had to agree with her. When the framers of the international refugee system came up with the rules, they didn’t think that a situation would arise where millions of people fleeing conflict would trek through more than one safe country in the hope of reaching their personal El Dorados’. It doesn’t feel, to me, like the issue is about refugee safety anymore, it feels like economic migration. And if it’s no longer about safety and more about economic opportunities, then countries should have every right to choose how they deal with economic migrants.

But as long as we mix these two issues in a politically volatile way, it will be impossible to have an honest discussion.

What the UK-Rwanda migration deal is about is finding a new way to deal with situations that refugee conventions hadn’t planned for. Let’s be honest here, the tens of thousands of people crossing the English Channel aren’t fleeing conflict in France. I mean, they could seek refuge there. They are simply choosing not to. They want to live and work in the UK. Maybe because they have family ties there or because they speak the language.

Either way, it’s a choice they are making. As a former refugee myself, the Kinyarwanda word that comes to me when I think about all of this is ‘bari mu miteto’ (they are acting spoiled).

Those calling for open borders under the guise of refugee rights are acting spoiled. And so are those wanting to pick and choose their final choice of abode. This system is broken because those who should be guiding the entire conversation are spending more time politicking and posturing and less time actually looking for real solutions to the very real problem of conflict and the lack of opportunities in the Global South. Is the Rwanda-UK partnership perfect? Maybe not. But let’s talk about real alternatives. What are they? Can we have that conversation? Or shall we continue to behave like children, shouting and throwing our toys out of the pram?

Mr Sanny Ntayombya is a socio-political commentator.


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