Rwanda to the world: every person has right to dignity and a home

As a portion of history, twenty-five years is a very short time. In Rwanda, however, the last quarter century has been long enough to transform the country and make it almost unrecognisable from its past.

I am not talking about economic transformation. That is visible. Everyone can see that.  Some of the symbols of that change - the Kigali Arena and Singita Lodge and Kataza House -  inaugurated in the same week are still fresh in the mind.

No, I am talking about the transformation that was captured in headlines in world media last week. The headline was: Rwanda to take in five hundred migrants stranded in Libya. It was making good on a pledge it made two years ago.  The offer is consistent with Rwanda’s policy of being open to other Africans.

Everyone is welcome, even those Rwandans who leave the country for whatever reason, including fugitives from justice. This is one of the few countries that actively seek the return of refugees. Now it is even offering a home to other Africans refused entry into Europe.

Anyone who knows the history of Rwanda will notice that this policy is a reversal of what it was barely twenty five years ago. Then this country routinely shipped out thousands of its citizens – those lucky not to have been killed – into exile and barred their return.

They will remember then President Juvenal Habyarimana’s infamous retort to demands of repatriation: Rwanda was like a glass full of water; there is no room for more. Add any and it will spillover.

So, what has caused this reversal? Why is Rwanda doing this? It is not exactly overflowing with resources and in dire need of help to exploit them lest they cause us some irreparable damage. Its territory has not expanded even by an inch. Rwandans may not be the most generous people in the world.

It all has to do with our history, values and what the country is today. But before we get into these, let us first look at why it was necessary in the first place to offer a home to migrants stuck in Libya.

It is the fulfilment of a pledge made at a joint African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) Summit on migrants in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in November 2017. That summit was triggered by a CNN investigative report in October 2017 that brought to light migrant slave auctions in Libya. It showed them packed in cages waiting for their turn on the auction block where they were sold for as little as $400.

The report shocked and shamed the world, but especially African leaders. There was widespread rage and condemnation of such practice in the 21st century. This was a blot on the world’s conscience and action had to be taken. And so the AU-EU summit was convened.

At the end of it, President Alpha Conde of Guinea and then chairman of the AU said: “We’ve made firm decisions for immediate repatriation of refugees...” and called for the punishment of human traffickers. The summit also resolved to invest in the youth for a sustainable future and as a way of stemming the exodus of migrants.

African countries resolved to act to end the indignity. They made pledges depending on the capacity of each. Rwanda pledged a home, permanent if they chose or as transit to other countries or back to their own.

There was a little activity for a while and then they seemed to forget about it. It was soon business as usual. Only Rwanda seems to have been working on its pledge and is now about to deliver on it.

The plight of migrants had been known long before the CNN exposure of slave trading in migrant detention camps in Libya.

Pictures of them crowded on rickety boats and drowning and dying in the Mediterranean Sea were all too common.

Deaths in the desert, detention in inhuman conditions and scenes of them being pushed back and borders closing behind them were regular sights.

They were all scenes of desperation and indignity.

That brings us back to the question: why did Rwanda offer to take in migrants stuck in Libya?

Part of the answer is the indignity they suffered that was all too clear.

Human dignity is an important consideration in Rwanda.. Rwandans cannot bear to see anyone subjected to any form of indignity, and if they can, they will do something about it.

But so should the rest of the world.  Many countries have human dignity enshrined in their constitutions. All protocols on human rights are constructed around the dignity of people.

All religions place human dignity at the centre of their teaching. Yet, despite all this, people’s dignity continues to be assaulted and very little is done about it.

Rwanda chose to act.

In addition to the question of dignity, many Rwandans have been there and know how it hurts to be denied a home.

And so, in giving migrants a home, Rwanda is acting on its principles, beliefs and values that also happen to be universal. Every person has right to a dignified life and a home.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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