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Rwanda ambassador: Suella Braverman ‘absolutely wrong’ on immigration

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, faces embarrassment over her immigration policy after the ambassador for Rwanda was filmed in an undercover sting claiming the UK government’s position is “absolutely wrong”.

Johnston Busingye, high commissioner of Rwanda, backs the UK government’s plan to send asylum seekers to his country, but said ministers needed to examine the driving forces of migration. He said it was “immoral” for Britain to claim to be a compassionate country.

Busingye was covertly filmed in a meeting in a London club in an investigation by the campaign group Led By Donkeys conducted with the journalist Antony Barnett. The ambassador was told he was meeting a businessman from a south-east Asian company wanting to invest in his country.

His scathing comments are published after Braverman last week called for reform of the global migration system, warning uncontrolled migration was an “existential challenge” to western nations.

The investigation also raises new questions over the government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and its record on human rights. The court of appeal ruled in June the plan was unlawful and the government has appealed to the supreme court, with a hearing in October.

Busingye appeared to speak dismissively about evidence that 12 refugees were shot dead by police in Rwanda in 2018. He said: “Yes, it might have happened, but so what?” The ambassador said this weekend in response to questions from the Observer that the fatal shootings in western Rwanda were a tragedy.

During the meeting at the Travellers Club in St James’s in August, he was asked what he would say to the prime minister or home secretary about the UK’s immigration policy. He responded by saying he would tell them it was “absolutely wrong”.

“They should have a long-term idea,” he said. “They should have a long-term policy of making it a choice for people not to risk their lives coming to the UK. Because right now, many people are not coming here because of war in their country. No, they’re coming here because they are hopeless. They’re coming here because they have no future.”

He said it was “immoral” for the UK to regard itself as a compassionate country. “[It] is immoral for this country to still see themselves as the refugee country, the solace country, the protection country, the compassion country,” he said. “They enslaved millions of people for 400 years. They destroyed India, they destroyed China, they destroyed Africa.”

The ambassador seemed perturbed over the media coverage of the fatal shootings of Congolese refugees protesting outside a UN high commissioner for refugees office in the Karongi district over cuts to food rations in February 2018.

He said: “Well, there is an incident in 2012 where the police shot 10 refugees. Yes, it might have happened, but so what? Here in the UK, someone is shot every day and it is on BBC and it is everywhere.”

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The ambassador said this weekend that he got the year of the shootings wrong. The reported number of dead is at least 12, according to reports compiled by Human Rights Watch.

During the meeting, the ambassador appeared reluctant to give a categorical assurance that any refugees transported to Rwanda from the UK would never be returned to their home country.

He said: “Even if it happened, in the unlikely event that it happened, how many times would it happen? And in broad daylight? We have a double British and Rwandan supervisory committee. It’s very independent.” Busingye was confirmed as high commissioner for Rwanda, an ambassadorial-level appointment, in March 2022, despite opposition from some MPs, including former Tory leaderIain Duncan Smith.

Busingye was justice minister when Paul Rusesabagina, whose efforts in saving more than 1,200 people from death were documented in the film Hotel Rwanda, was allegedly abducted and detained on charges including terrorism by the Rwandan government in August 2020 after being tricked into taking a chartered flight from Dubai to Rwanda.

Led By Donkeys set up a fake south-east Asian company and approached the public affairs agency Chelgate about investing in Rwanda. The London-based business has links to the Rwandan government, and its chairman, Terence Fane-Saunders, advised Busingye during the international condemnation over Rusesabagina’s detention. He was freed in March after his 25-year sentence was commuted.

In an initial online meeting, Fane-Saunders, who was unaware the person he was speaking to was a fake businessman and part of a sting, explained the work he and his agency had done for the Rwandan government.

It included media training, arranging visits for journalists and advising Busingye when he was justice minister for a television interview with Al Jazeera on the detention of Rusesabagina. The footage of this session was later inadvertently sent to Al Jazeera.Fane-Saunders said in the online call he considered Rusesabagina had been kidnapped. He said: “The Rwandan intelligence service had heard he had chartered this plane…and they arranged with the plane that it should stop over in Kigali… It was quite funny. The definition of a kidnap. I mean, I think technically it was a kidnap.”

The veteran public affairs executive also said Chelgate had helped arrange trips to Rwanda for journalists, but those who were thought to be critical were not invited. He said: “We haven’t organised a trip for any hostile critics out to Rwanda,” he said. “They would just be digging for negative stuff. “

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In March 2023, Braverman faced criticism that an official press trip to Rwanda excluded some media organisations, including the Guardian, the Daily Mirror and the BBC. Chelgate said it was not representing the Rwandan government at the time of the trip in March.

Fane-Saunders offered to arrange a meeting between the “businessman” and the ambassador during the online call in August. He also attended the lunch meeting with Busingye and the “businessman” at the Travellers Club that month.

Fane-Saunders said Chelgate does not currently work for the Rwandan government or represent it and his comments during the online meeting were made in a personal capacity. He said he was speaking “privately and informally” and the recording was made without permission.

He said neither he nor his company had a professional relationship with Rwanda, the Rwandan government or any of its representatives.

Busingye said in a statement to the Observer: “My comments about the short-term approach to migration is applicable to all nations in the global north.” He said countries needed to invest strategically in countries fuelling migration and the Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP) between the UK and Rwanda was “an important first step in addressing the imbalance in opportunities”.

When asked why he considered it immoral for the UK to call itself a compassionate country, he said: “No country can claim to be wholly compassionate at all times. What’s important is how we set about addressing the wrongs of the past.”

He said the MEDP sought to do that and it had his full backing. He said no asylum seeker relocated from the UK would be forced back to their country of origin.

With regard to the shootings of refugees, he said that it was an isolated incident that had been fully investigated. He said: “Lessons have been learned by all relevant parties to ensure there are no repeats of such an incident.

“Rwanda has a well-established track record of providing safety, security, and opportunity for refugees.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “We need innovative solutions to stop the boats and break the business model of the people-smuggling gangs – including our new Illegal Migration Act and our Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda.

“We remain fully committed to this policy, as does the Rwandan government. We will continue to defend the policy robustly in the courts.”

The investigation by Led By Donkeys can be seen at youtube.com/@LedByDonkeys