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Rwanda looks to gain political leverage after it agrees to a refugee deal with U.K.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The European Court of Human Rights put on hold the U.K.'s deal to move asylum-seekers to Rwanda. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is not backing down. They argue that the plan would save lives by deterring illegal trafficking and discouraging migrants from several countries from setting off on dangerous journeys across the English Channel. We wanted to understand what this deal means for Rwanda, so we called up Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at SOAS University of London whose work focuses on Rwanda and its neighbors. Clark says Rwanda is always on the lookout for ways to expand its influence.

PHIL CLARK: And it makes a very small country potentially quite politically powerful.

FADEL: Great Britain has already paid Rwanda the equivalent of about a hundred and fifty million U.S. dollars upfront. I asked Clark how much of Rwanda's motive was economic?

CLARK: The Rwandan government doesn't stand to make very much profit off of this deal. I think the bigger issue is the political leverage that Rwanda gets here. And what Rwanda's done in the past is that whenever it's criticized for its human rights record at home - for cracking down on the media or cracking down on political dissidents - if those critical noises get too loud, Rwanda threatens to pull out of international deals. In the past, it's threatened to pull its peacekeepers out of Darfur when foreign donors were threatening to pull foreign aid out of Rwanda. So that's the kind of leverage that I think Rwanda hopes to get out of this U.K. migration deal.

FADEL: Before we move on from this thought, I did want to ask you, though, about the concerns around human rights when it comes to refugees that are being taken to Rwanda from the U.K. That is also a lot of concerns when you talk to advocates in the U.K. about removing them from their country.

CLARK: There's certainly legitimate human rights concerns about the general state of politics in Rwanda. I think the Rwandan political system is very closed. I've been working there for 20 years now, and I think it's become increasingly difficult for critical opposition voices or critical media to operate in that space. Now, whether that directly affects refugees and asylum-seekers, I think, is a different question.

For the most part, Rwanda has quite a good record of looking after refugees and asylum-seekers from neighboring countries, and it's been running refugee camps - particularly for Burundian and Congolese refugees - for the last couple of decades. There was one incident in 2018 where the Rwandan authorities fired on refugees in a Congolese camp, and several refugees were killed. So there is that particular historical moment. But for the most part, Rwanda's track record in running these camps humanely is quite positive.

FADEL: But these aren't the only refugees that Rwanda's dealing with.

CLARK: No. And that's one of the complexities, I guess, of this U.K. migration deal is at the same time as Rwanda is gearing up to take asylum-seekers from the U.K., the - Rwanda is embroiled in a huge refugee crisis brewing across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rwandan army is accused of funding a rebel movement - the M23 rebels - in eastern DRC. The M23, at the moment, are engaged in pitched battles against the Congolese army, and that conflict is generating a huge refugee flow out of eastern Congo. Some of those refugees, in fact, are going into Rwanda. So at the same time as Rwanda is gearing up to try to help the U.K. with its asylum-seeker situation, Rwanda is arguably generating a refugee problem.

FADEL: So could this deal backfire on Rwanda?

CLARK: It could backfire on Rwanda. I think what has happened is that the deal has already brought Rwanda a huge amount of international attention and international criticism. One of the points that's been raised with me quite consistently from my Rwandan colleagues based in Rwanda at the moment is they're concerned that this deal makes Rwanda look like the U.K.'s lackey. Kagame has often prided himself on being this anti-Western, anti-imperial voice in Africa who was willing to stand up to donor pressure and external pressure. And this deal seems to put Rwanda in a subordinate position, where it's really dealing with the U.K.'s problem in taking these asylum-seekers.

So I think there are some concerns within Rwanda that this perhaps dilutes a message that the Rwandan government has been proclaiming quite loudly for a long time now. So there are undoubtedly some serious reputational risks that Rwanda is taking in even being part of this partnership.

FADEL: Phil Clark is an international politics professor at SOAS University of London. Thank you so much for joining us.

CLARK: Thanks, Leila. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.