Rwanda: UK government under fire from LGBTQ+ campaigners after it changes travel advice for Rwanda

The UK government’s Rwanda bill was passed in Westminster last month

The UK government has come under fire from LGBTQ+ refugee groups after it issued new travel advice for Rwanda to claim the country “does not discriminate against sexual orientation”, despite fears raised over its human rights record.

Critics of the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda have warned any refugees who identify as LGBTQ+ could be persecuted in Rwanda. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) now insists the Rwandan government does “not discriminate against sexual orientation”.

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Opposition politicians accused the government of introducing the change to provide cover for their controversial Rwanda asylum policy – rather than to reflect any change in policy in the country.

People protest against the Rwanda deportation bill outside Downing Street on May 1.People protest against the Rwanda deportation bill outside Downing Street on May 1.
People protest against the Rwanda deportation bill outside Downing Street on May 1.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda bill was passed in Westminster last month. Asylum seekers who arrive in the UK through “non-legal” means, such as in a small boat, could be sent to Rwanda for processing and if their claim is accepted, given the right to remain there.

The official advice for travellers to the east African nation from FCDO still states that while consensual, same-sex acts are not illegal in Rwanda, locals may still “frown upon” them.

However, the new update reassures visitors that Rwanda’s constitution “prohibits all forms of discrimination”. This is in stark contrast to previous guidance, which said LGBTQ+ travellers can “experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities” and warned Rwanda does not have any specific anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT individuals.

Sebastian Rocca, chief executive of Micro Rainbow, said LGBTQ+ asylum seekers were “terrified” at the prospect of being sent to Rwanda.

He said: “Rwanda is a dangerous place for LGBTQI people. Micro Rainbow works with Rwandan LGBTQI asylum seekers who have been forced to flee to the UK to escape the persecution and discrimination they faced. The idea that LGBTQI asylum seekers could be safely resettled in the country, which has no specific laws protecting LGBTQI people, is illogical.

“Changing the wording of the travel advice on the website does not change the facts on the ground. No laws have changed in Rwanda and the Home Office previously acknowledged that LGBTQI people were not protected under the constitution, which remains the same. Nothing has changed to suggest that LGBTQI people will now be safe and protected through the constitution.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said the update could be regarded as a way to reinforce the government’s insistence that Rwanda is a safe country for all asylum seekers.

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He said: “The suspicion will always be in the back of people’s minds that this travel advice is being updated to provide cover for the government’s ridiculous Rwanda policy, rather than because the political situation on the ground has changed.

“Putting LGBT+ travellers at risk by sanitising the risks they could face in Rwanda would be dangerous even by the standards of this government.”

The United Nations has previously warned the UK government of the difficulties LGBTQ+ asylum seekers face in Rwanda. Rwanda does not recognise same-sex relationships, and in 2009 debated whether to make homosexuality a criminal offence, with a punishment of up to ten years imprisonment. The legislation was not taken forward.

Glasgow immigration lawyer Usman Aslam, senior associate at Mukhtar & Co, also pointed to concerns raised over the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in Rwanda.

He said: “The LGBT community is arguably very unsafe in Rwanda. A country may very well have laws in place. However, the question is more whether those laws are actually implemented.

"If locals frown upon same sex relationships – which the UK has agreed they do – and if the police are unwilling to assist, then the LGBT community are absolutely at risk. There are endless sources that show Rwanda is unsafe for same sex relationships, contrary to the UK update.”

Mr Aslam added: “Laws are only as good as the enforceability and let’s also not forget Rwanda were imprisoning anyone not long ago who supported same sex relationships.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We have brought our travel advice in line with the international Treaty with Rwanda, which makes clear that Rwanda is safe.

“Rwanda’s constitution includes a broad prohibition on discrimination and does not criminalise or discriminate against sexual orientation in law or policy.”

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