Rwanda ‘cash-for-humans’ plan leaves refugees ‘terrified’

Sepideh, Co-ordinator of Survivors Speak OUT, writes about her first-hand experiences and seeing refugees and torture survivors 'living in limbo' because of the government's Rwanda plan.

I was about to interrupt the world’s largest aviation conference. It was 2022 and, along with another activist who’d survived torture and navigated the UK asylum system, I’d travelled to Amsterdam to publicly condemn the private airlines who’d agreed to undertake the government’s cruel ‘cash-for-humans’ Rwanda flights.

As you would expect, my heart rate was through the roof, and I was extremely nervous. By the time my cue came, I stood up and took to the stage to say as loud as I could that Privilege Style airlines were profiting from the pain of refugees. I only remember a woman walking me off the stage after I’d said my piece.

The stunt was a success. The crowd applauded and, after the event, a member of the board even wrote to us to express their support. Along with public support and other actions organised by groups that I’m part of (the charity Freedom from Torture and the survivor of torture network Survivors Speak OUT) as part of our Stop the Flights campaign, Privilege Style, the airline tipped to carry out the flights, emailed us to confirm that they had pulled out of the scheme. I was so proud. We’d done it.

These memories are now complicated for me. While I’m proud of my team’s achievements, the time between then and now is littered with false hopes, anti-refugee hysteria, and now the real possibility of a flight to Rwanda. I feel like all our efforts, after all this time, have come to very little. People like us have been ignored.

I know what it’s like to have to leave my home against my will, and at very short notice. I have also taken a traumatic journey under difficult circumstances to reach safety. This unexpected chapter turned my life upside down, and it’s only through support and having the reassurance of knowing that my status is secured that I’ve been able to start the hard work of recovering and rebuilding my life.

But for so many other people I know who are waiting for their claims to be processed, in some cases for decades, they are terrified that the plane ticket to Rwanda could come at any time and have raised these feelings of anxiety in our group meetings. They are living in limbo in the UK and haven’t been able to start rebuilding their lives yet. One phone call could spell disaster.

Despite claims by the government that Rwanda is ‘safe’, the Supreme Court, UNHCR, and other human rights experts don’t agree. There are still many serious human rights concerns.

In the time since announcing the scheme, while arguing that Rwanda was safe, the government has also granted asylum to Rwandan refugees. All of this makes my hair stand up on end. How can our government play politics with the lives of people fleeing persecution, war, and torture? Some of the people who this government is happy to put on a plane include victims of human trafficking and survivors of torture.

The Act will allow the government to shirk its responsibility to commitments that the UK solemnly made in the wake of the Second World War. The people in power are playing God with human lives.

We are bound to see images and footage of people being herded onto planes like cattle, being flown to a country 4,000 miles away where those on board have no family or cultural ties, where there’s no guarantee of safety or a roof over their head, and where the possibility of being sent back to the hands of their torturers can’t be ruled out. We are flying people into the unknown. I ask you, is this what ‘safe’ looks like?

The Rwanda Act means we are one step closer to it passing and Suella Braverman’s ‘dream’ of flights in the air coming true. For me, as a refugee, the dream is a nightmare.

Article first published in Byline Times

Banner image credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images