Price of Rwanda’s clean streets? Detained children, NGO says.

Why We Wrote This

No one wants to scrutinize success stories – particularly when the previous chapter is as horrific as Rwanda’s genocide. But the country’s dramatic progress sometimes comes at a steep cost for human rights, observers say. 

Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/AP/File
The cityscape of downtown Kigali, the growing capital of Rwanda, is seen on Jan. 31, 2019. The country's progress since its 1994 genocide is often held up as a success story, though the government is frequently accused of repression.

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In the quarter century since Rwanda’s horrific genocide, the country has become a frequently praised “success story,” applauded for its rising measures of health, education, well-being – and clean, safe streets. But that order is maintained, in part, by a network of squalid facilities for detaining people accused of “deviant behaviors,” including homeless children, according to a report released last week by Human Rights Watch. 

Ostensibly, the children are then taken to rehabilitation centers to be taught vocational skills. But many of the children interviewed by the rights group said they were released back onto the streets, and most said they had been beaten. 

The situation can be seen as a microcosm of Rwanda’s larger paradox. The tiny “country of a thousand hills” has experienced, in many ways, a dazzling transformation. Yet the miracle has always shown cracks, and is maintained, many critics say, at the point of a gun. President Paul Kagame’s critics have been violently suppressed, and he has won in excess of 90% of the votes in every election.

“We want to push the international community to ask tough questions of Rwanda,” says Lewis Mudge, of Human Rights Watch. “And to the government, we hope this will prod them in the right direction.”

As advertisements for a country go, Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is top of the class. Visitors glide into town from its tidy international airport on smooth, pothole-free roads, passing glossy high-rises, luxury hotels, and the flashing neon dome of a $300 million conference center. In Kigali, often dubbed “Africa’s Singapore,” the streets stay swept, the hedges stay trimmed, and the garbage stays in its cans. At night, locals and tourists alike walk with their gazes fixed on the glow of their cellphones, unworried about petty thieves or worse.

But like much of Rwanda’s success over the 25 years since the country’s genocide, the order of its capital has come at a heavy human cost. To keep its streets clean, the Rwandan government relies on a network of squalid detention facilities where homeless people, beggars, informal street vendors, and others accused of “deviant behaviors” can be held for months without charge, according to a report released last week by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has documented abuses in these facilities for more than a decade.

Among the victims, according to the most recent report, are likely hundreds of homeless children who have been held at Kigali’s Gikondo Transit Center, where they are routinely beaten and denied access to toilets, sufficient food, and clean living quarters.

“There’s a high price to pay for Kigali’s image as a pristine city, and it’s being paid by society’s most vulnerable,” says Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director for HRW. “We shouldn’t forget that one of the reasons the city is so clean is because of this practice of routinely rounding up people deemed undesirable.”

Rwandan Minister of Justice Johnston Busingye did not respond to the Monitor’s request for comment, but told Rwandan media outlet KT Press that the HRW report was “politically motivated” and that it was “insane for anyone to suggest that the government is getting rid of its unwanted to keep the streets clean … ignoring the progress we have made in turning former delinquents into useful citizens.”

But the situation for homeless children in Kigali, indeed, can be seen as a microcosm of Rwanda’s paradox more generally. The tiny “country of a thousand hills” is, in many ways, one of the modern world’s most dazzling success stories.

In the span of a few short months in 1994, nearly 1 million Rwandans were murdered, many by their own neighbors, in one of the most brutal mass killings of the 20th century. But in the years since, Rwanda has shot up the charts on global measures of health, education, and well-being, earning it vaunted status among the world’s development titans. (“I hope many African nations will emulate what Rwanda is doing,” said then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2013, congratulating the country on its majority-female parliament.) Its wiry, bookish president, Paul Kagame, who is credited with leading that revolution, is a darling of the Davos set, regularly lauded by global institutions and fellow leaders. In 2018, Forbes named him its “African of the Year.”

Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters
Children sleep on the veranda of a house in Kigali, Rwanda, on Jan. 22, 2020. In a report published last week, Human Rights Watch accused the country of detaining homeless children in poor conditions.

But the Rwandan miracle has always shown cracks. It is maintained, many critics say, literally at the point of a gun. Mr. Kagame’s critics have been violently suppressed, and on several occasions, assassinated, although the government denies responsibility. He has won in excess of 90% of the votes in every election he has run. And independent analyses, including one by the Financial Times, have suggested that some of the figures used to mark Rwanda’s tumbling levels of poverty were intentionally manipulated by the country’s statisticians to show a more dramatic level of progress. 

And then there are the much-celebrated clean streets.

“Kagame is fantastic at PR, and he knows that visibly his country looks a lot better than its neighbors, and that to international observers, that matters,” says Stephanie Wolters, an analyst on the Great Lakes region of Africa with the South African Institute of International Affairs. “Many donor countries and international organizations simply aren’t interested in scrutinizing the situation further.” And they have other reasons not to look too closely, she says, given Rwanda’s stability in a rough global neighborhood.

Once a month, all Rwandans participate in compulsory neighborhood cleanups called umuganda. Under Rwandan law, meanwhile, anyone exhibiting “deviant behaviors” in its streets, which it describes as “prostitution, drug use, begging, vagrancy, informal street vending, or any other deviant behavior that is harmful to the public,” can be rounded up and kept for two months without charge in one of the country’s transit centers.

Last year, Human Rights Watch spoke to 30 children held at the transit center, most of whom said they had been beaten there.

“The police captain with three stars on his uniform hit me at least 20 times with his police club,” said a 15-year-old girl arrested in April 2019. “He said that as long as we’re in the streets, he’ll keep beating us.” 

Ostensibly, centers like Gikondo are temporary stops before children living on the streets and others are taken to rehabilitation centers to be taught vocational skills. But many of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were never transferred to those centers, and instead released after an arbitrary length of time back onto the streets, beginning the catch-and-release cycle again.

“They put us in a car, and everyone was dropped off where they had been arrested. That was the fifth time I was in Gikondo,” explained a 16-year-old girl. 

Although Rwanda’s case is extreme, it is not the only country to detain people experiencing homelessness to keep them off the streets. In many countries, major sporting events provide the pretext. Ahead of the 2008 Olympics, officials in Beijing relocated homeless residents to centers outside the city. Before the Athens games four years earlier, several Roma communities were forcibly evicted or displaced. And in Brazil ahead of the 2016 Rio games, children’s advocates raised alarm about homeless youths being detained arbitrarily.

Mr. Mudge said that he is hopeful that Rwanda’s interest in maintaining its vaunted international image will compel the country to respond to HRW’s demands, which include closing Gikondo permanently. After previous HRW reports on the center in 2006 and 2016, the government instituted some reforms, he says, but they ultimately proved shallow. 

“We want to push the international community to ask tough questions of Rwanda,” he says. “And to the government, we hope this will prod them in the right direction.”

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