Could Arsenal football club sink Boris Johnson’s disgraceful Rwanda deportation deal?

As the UK government goes “all in” on anti-refugee racism, the weak point could be the Rwandan side.

Arsenal’s football kit is emblazoned with the logo of the Rwandan tourist board. Photo: Visit Rwanda (Flickr).

Although described as an “offshore processing” system, a closer look at the details of the UK-Rwanda deal suggests this is more like a straightforward deportation arrangement – or “one way ticket” in all but name.

The Rwandan authorities will supposedly decide whether to grant refugee protection allowing asylum claimants to resettle in the country, or move them to unspecified “safe third countries”. Given the authoritarian nature of the Rwandan state, whose leader, Paul Kagame, has led the country since seizing power after the genocide in 1994, the UK government has had to include a formal exemption for those fleeing his regime. Rwanda will be paid an initial £120m for its trouble, but the costs to the UK tax-payer are expected to be far in excess of this overtime.

The UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, condemned the proposals in a public statement. “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy,” she said. “They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing”. The Labour Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, described the plan as “unworkable, unethical and [financially] extortionate” for tax-payers. Meanwhile, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood called it a “massive detraction” exercise from the Prime Minister’s party gate scandal.

So, what can we do to stop this? The UK government have not yet passed the legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, which includes this proposal and there is still significant opposition to the policy in the House of Lords. But ultimately the Conservatives can use their parliamentary majority in the Commons to force it through. As they are committed to this “culture war” anti-refugee agenda, there may be more scope to pressure Rwanda to pull out.

From Israel to Arsenal: How to stop this rotten deal
This isn’t the first time that the Kagame regime has signed up for this type of agreement. Along with Uganda, Rwanda previously had a similar arrangement with Israel. This saw 4,000 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees deported to these states between 2014 and 2018. They were provided with $3.5k in cash but given no legal status in the country, and were basically left to fend for themselves after they arrived at the airport. The vast majority of the deportees simply used the money to pay people smugglers in order to then make the journey to Europe.

This disgraceful episode puts into question the credibility of the claims the UK government are making regarding Rwanda’s willingness to provide legal protection and support for refugees to resettle in the country.

Unlike the UK agreement, Rwanda never publicly acknowledged its deal with Israel. As they were already embarrassed by the disclosure of this secret arrangement, Israeli activists were able to successfully apply pressure to force the Rwandan government to pull out.

Could a similar strategy work here? Yes, quite possibly.

Arsenal football club has a controversial sponsorship deal with the Rwandan government’s tourist board, “Visit Rwanda”. Given the state’s terrible human rights record, the club should never have adopted the £10m a year agreement in the first place – another sign of English football’s “greed is good” culture. Pressure is now growing on Arsenal to either drop them as a sponsor or use it as leverage to force Rwanda to pull out of its UK deportation deal.

There are also other avenues for campaigners to push. While Rwanda was not a British colony, it joined the Commonwealth in 2009 as part of its public relations efforts, taking every opportunity to burnish its pro-Western credentials – and will host a meeting of the organisation in June. With the Commonwealth Games also coming to Birmingham this year, there are a series of opportunities to apply pressure on the Rwandan government.

So, a two-pronged strategy, which combines calling out the UK’s anti-refugee racism at home with putting pressure on the Rwanda government to dump the deal and pull out, has every chance of defeating this disgraceful policy.