Visit Rwanda? Government refugee plan brings Arsenal deal into focus

As asylum seekers face transportation to east Africa, Tribune editor – and Arsenal fan – Richard Osley reflects on why the policy might make supporters look again at the sleeves on their replica kits

Friday, 22nd April — By Richard Osley

Tony Adams meets Rwandan leder Paul Kagame

Legendary captain Tony Adams meets Rwandan leader Paul Kagame. Photo: Flickr /Paul Kagame / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

IT may seem like the last idea from a mad spad brainstorm, perhaps suggested by somebody playing the fool after long hours locked in the policy unit: Hey, let’s just send them to Rwanda.

But somebody in turn must have said yes. Then somebody else nodded, and then all of a sudden Priti Patel, the home secretary, was agreeing it was a wonderful way to deal with asylum seekers trying to reach the UK by crossing the Channel in small boats.

As a processing facility is set up in the east African nation, even ­former prime minister­ Theresa May said she doubts its legality.

Rwanda is, these days, meant to be a place we’d all want to pay good money to fly to – a dreamy tourist destination no less.

That’s according to its government’s expensive sponsorship deals at least, with Paris St Germain football club and our own beloved Arsenal.

Anybody who has recently bought a replica Gunners shirt will have had no choice but to parade down the Holloway Road and beyond with “Visit Rwanda” on their sleeves.

Even in sometimes difficult moments for an inconsistent team on the pitch, there isn’t much that guarantees exposure more than attaching your name to a Premier League football club of Arsenal’s size.

There is, it should be made absolutely clear, no connection between Ms Patel’s refugee strategy and the financial deals struck by the club.

But the controversial aspects of the government’s gameplan have triggered similar concerns to those that were bubbling away when Rwanda’s tourist board claimed its prominent place on those famous red and white kits.

In truth, the ugly ownership of Chelsea, Manchester City and Newcastle has dwarfed any objections that may have unfolded in north London.

And, if we are blunt, most supporters’ adoration for the team trumps any simmering desire to get involved in a dinner party debate about human rights and international diplomacy. But it did not go wholly unnoticed as to who the club were getting into bed with.

That’s because even before you meet the moral arguments over whether a country should be sponsoring a team 6,000 miles away to the tune of £10million a year when so many of its people are suffering in extreme poverty, there are uncomfortable entries, to put it mildly, on that human rights file.

There is always something to be said for looking at how our own national democracy ticks by and whether we really are as pure as snow in how the UK’s politics operates. But even so: Rwanda’s leader Paul Kagame’s last election win with 99 per cent of the vote tells a story in itself.

Former Arsenal defender David Luiz on a trip to Rwanda. Photo: Flickr / Visit Rwanda / CC BY-ND 2.0

This far-fetched electoral success is celebrated by his supporters as vital stability for a country ripped apart by a gruesome civil war and an all too often forgotten genocide in the 1990s.

At least half a million people died as killing squads tried to eliminate Tutsi Rwandans, often using machetes.

Kagame was with the Rwandan Patriotic Front which ended the genocide, but since taking power himself has been accused of ruling with intimidation.

Critics, including journalists, are said to suffer mysterious deaths.

The leader and his supporters deny all of the claims thrown at them by human rights groups.

It all seems a world away from a football pitch in north London and our endless debates over who is better: Arsenal or Spurs.

But as a supporter since a childhood indoctrination, it is unsettling.

Only last year, our Foreign Office, now signing deals with Rwanda, was calling for more transparency and credibility – and media freedom.

Rwanda should conduct “independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice”, said one official recommendation.

One of the most revered cases is the 25-year prison sentence handed to Paul Rusesabagina not long before the Covid pandemic. His life was brought to movie screens in the film Hotel Rwanda as he gave safe haven to those fleeing in fear of their lives from the civil war.

More recently, he was charged with terrorism but his supporters say he is the victim of a show trial in a country where too much dissent is sharply punished.

Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba has said Arsenal must not stay silent now.

“Arsenal should stand up and call out these human rights abuses, rather than solely to celebrate Rwanda for being the beautiful country that it is,” she said in an interview with the Mirror.

“They should be demanding that the country improves itself and they should be putting more efforts into ensuring that the government improves.”

Kagame is by all accounts an ardent follower of the Gunners and, as a leader who embraces and understands not just the power of marketing but of social media too, could be found tweeting his frustration at a loss to Brentford on the opening weekend of the season.

As part of the connection which runs back to an initial contract signed in 2018, Arsenal players and ambassadors have visited Rwanda, including Mr Arsenal himself, the former club captain, Tony Adams, who was pictured receiving a warm reception.

He attended a gorilla-naming ceremony in the hills – you can buy a fluffy primate wearing an Arsenal kit in the club shop here to help, with a “percentage” of sales going to habitat conservation – and had a meeting with the president himself.

Positively, coaches have been over to help with the development of the sport, encouraging boys and girls to take part.

An extension to the deal means the Gunners are tied in until 2025 and it seems they have no regrets. The tone of any Arsenal comment about the arrangement always seems warm.

As the deal was first agreed, club executives said this was a “good fit”.

When the Guardian more recently asked whether the Gunners still held that view, the club said it was “delighted” by how the hook-up had progressed. So the message is still clearly Visit Rwanda.

This summer, Arsenal fans may or may not take up the holiday idea emblazoned on their upper arms each matchday.

Others, the government has decided, will be visiting whether they like it or not.

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