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Former Rwanda football captain who fled genocide for UK says he’d have been a target for deportation

A former captain of the Rwandan national football team who was granted asylum in the UK after fleeing genocide has expressed sadness that he could have been deported to a country 4,500 miles away under the Government’s new scheme.

On his way back from playing in a World Cup qualifier against Tunisia in 1996, Eric Eugène Murangwa MBE decided to claim asylum in Europe, feeling he could never be truly safe in Rwanda, having lost as many as 70 members of his extended family in the 1994 genocide.

An estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in just 100 days by Hutu extremists, who sought to exterminate the Tutsi ethnic minority.

After first applying for asylum in Belgium, he flew to the UK in 1997, submitting a second application, which was approved a year later.

His comments come as the Government is facing last-minute legal challenges to its new refugee policy, which would see asylum seekers deported to Rwanda on arrival in the UK for processing and, if their applications succeed, permanent resettlement.

While the Home Office has stressed the scheme will primarily target migrants arriving by “illegal” means, such as on unauthorized boats or stowed away in lorries, it could also apply to those who traveled to the UK from a safe third country, as Mr Murangwa did in his early 20s.

Mr Murangwa sees Rwanda as being well placed to receive vulnerable refugees and able to offer them a positive future (Photo: Supplied)

Now 46, Mr Murangwa, who lives in west London, said his first response to hearing of the policy was surprise. I have told Yo: “I didn’t understand. I didn’t expect that a country like the UK would consider doing something like that, taking asylum seekers from here all the way back to Africa.

I added: “It’s sad. It’s sad that such a thing is happening. But we need to be honest about the situation. This is not something that came from nowhere.

“The treatment of asylum seekers and migrants has been worsening over two decades.

“It is unbelievably sad to see how people have been treated – the inhumane Calais camps, people drowning on a regular basis and no one doing anything about it.”

Mr Murangwa, who played in goal for his country and Rayon Sports, Rwanda’s most popular club, is now chief executive officer and co-founder of the Ishami Foundation, a charity which uses sport and storytelling to spread awareness of the Rwandan genocide. In 2018, he was recognized for his work with an MBE.

At the height of the genocide, he narrowly escaped death, when soldiers who invaded his home found a photo album filled with photographs of him playing for Rayon.

“For the next 10 minutes we were talking about football. Just a few minutes earlier I genuinely feared for my life,” Mr Murangwa told the BBC. “Definitely the photos saved my life.”

Mr Murangwa was recognized for his work with an MBE in 1998 (Photo: Supplied)

According to Government documents, an asylum claim may be “declared inadmissible and not substantively considered in the UK, if the claimant was previously present in or had another connection to a safe third country”.

This suggests the policy will apply not just to those who have made perilous journeys, but anyone who has traveled via a country where they were not directly at risk of harm.

“I would have felt terribly bad if I had been placed on a flight thousands of miles away,” Mr Murangwa said.

“There is clearly an element of racism involved. Refugees are treated completely differently depending on where they are from. Just look at how the Ukrainian situation has been dealt with in recent months.”

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine the Government has established two schemes by which refugees can resettle in the UK. More than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived since the conflict began, although the Government has come under criticism for failing to process applications quickly enough.

Last Thursday, Mr Murangwa met the Prince of Wales at the Commonwealth Diaspora reception at Buckingham Palace, days before reports emerged claiming Charles had expressed opposition to the Government’s Rwanda policy several times in private, describing it as “appalling”.

Mr Murangwa says they did not discuss the issue.

While he objects to the UK Government off-shoring its duties, Mr Murangwa sees Rwanda as being well placed to receive vulnerable refugees and offer them a positive future.

“In the current Rwandan leadership, the majority of them have lived pretty much half of their lives as refugees. So they understand what being a refugee means,” he said.

Under the deal, the UK is giving Rwanda an initial payment of £120 million to invest in the “economic development and growth”.

Resettling in Rwanda may require a “change of mindset” for people who hope to settle in the west, Mr Murangwa added, encouraging anyone who is relocated to find inspiration in the country’s recent history.

“Rwanda was declared by pretty much everyone in the world to be the next failed state after the genocide. Us Rwandans didn’t believe we would be able to live side by side again. When I travel to Rwanda now, I see an unbelievable change in the people,” he said.

“To see how Rwandans have recovered will help them understand life in a different way.”

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