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I have reported in Rwanda three times. On my fourth attempt, I was not allowed on the plane

My reporting and experience in Rwanda was used as evidence in the legal challenge against the UK Home Office’s Rwanda deportation plan

It took me a moment to realise that the airline staff at the gate in front of me were shaking their heads. It was March 25th, and I was in Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia, about to board a flight to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Or not. I would not be allowed any further, the staff were telling me.

The issue, they were saying, was that Rwandan authorities had emailed the airline about two hours before with my name, specifically saying that I was not allowed on. Instead, I should sit to the side and wait. They would hold on to my passport.

Eventually, I was marched to an airline office, where I asked what would happen now. They said they had no explanation as to why I was barred – I would have to take it up with Rwandan authorities. I probably should have expected that they also wouldn’t give me a free flight anywhere else – I had to purchase one, they said, and I couldn’t stay in the airport much longer. They held my passport until I did.

I have reported in Rwanda three times over the past decade. One of my very first assignments as a reporter – when I was just 24 – was covering the 20th anniversary of the genocide, also for The Irish Times. During that trip, I interviewed Mary Robinson, who spoke about the “very tight control” of the media there. I was vaguely aware that a journalist who had run afoul of the government disappeared while I was in the country, and later turned up in government custody. More Rwandan journalists later contacted me saying they had fled completely; Rwanda is known to pursue its critics abroad as well as at home.


In late 2019, I went back to the country to meet refugees who had been evacuated to Rwanda from Libya, under an EU-backed, UN Refugee Agency-supported scheme that would eventually see them moved on to western countries. In early 2020, then based in Uganda, I returned to meet them again. For both trips, I was working under a year-long accreditation that officials told me was granted only because they believed I would write “good stories” about them.

The fact that I was stopped before boarding the flight made me wonder if officials had scanned through the flight logs and searched everyone on them, or whether my name was already on a list

My reports on the situation for refugees there were published in The Irish Times, UK and US media outlets. One chapter of my book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route – which was named An Post Irish Book of the Year in 2022 and also won the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top prize for political writing – is also based on those 2019 and 2020 meetings. Already then, I saw how frightened my sources were to speak openly – we met in isolated places where we could keep a watch out for anyone listening in.

Refugees continued to contact me after I left, both to give general updates and to forward complaints about their treatment that were not being resolved. One particular case involved a claim about the alleged attempted sexual assault of a minor. I only published a report after the teenager had been publicly denounced online by the Rwandan police force, before a proper investigation was concluded. In the aftermath, a spokesperson for Rwandan president Paul Kagame accused me of writing “refugee porn”, and the government-aligned New Times newspaper said I “peddle lies”.

My reporting and experience in Rwanda was later submitted as evidence in the legal challenge against the UK Home Office’s Rwanda deportation plan (it was highly relevant given that the UK Home Office was using the EU-backed evacuation scheme in discussions as to why their scheme should go ahead).

On this latest planned trip, timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the genocide, I was hoping to follow up with people I had met in 2014, as well as to do some general news reporting for The Irish Times. My media accreditation application - which had been approved for other international journalists within a day or two - was still pending when I embarked on my flight to Rwanda, but this is not unusual: more journalists entered before and after me with applications pending. I expected not to be able to work until it was sorted, but not to be blocked from entering the country.

Aside from media accreditation, Rwanda has a visa-on-arrival system for Irish citizens. The fact that I was stopped before boarding the flight made me wonder if officials had scanned through the flight logs and searched everyone on them, or whether my name was already on a list that means it flashes up whatever I do. I waited weeks to go public with this, trying to resolve the issue so I could still travel there, but I have still not received a clear explanation as to why I was barred.

I was, maybe ironically, coming from a European Young Leaders summit that had been held by think tank Friends of Europe in Paris, where one of the topics discussed was how Europe is becoming more right-wing, ahead of the European elections in June. Migration – and the toxic debate around it – is a big part of that.

Abusive migration policies are being seen all over the western world, and they are growing incrementally in their cruelty. I know people in the UK who are at risk of being sent to Rwanda at this moment. Many have spent years trying to reach safety, crossing seas and deserts, living through detention, and watching friends or family members die. This deal – created to act as a deterrent – is mental torture for those who have gone through so much. An overlooked aspect of all this is that many of those involved originally fled dictatorships and persecution – the idea that they will be put in a similar environment again is incredibly frightening.

I’m a journalist, not an activist. I don’t propose policy. When I am asked about the Rwanda deal though, I do say that proper monitoring and evaluation will not be possible in a country with such tight control over criticism and dissent.

A lack of freedom of speech doesn’t mean no speech for anyone. Rwanda is renowned for unleashing co-ordinated pro-government online campaigns against journalists

I am often asked by British media what else the British are meant to do to stop people arriving on their shores, as if the UK is the only place people are migrating to. Last month, I stood on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, where more than than 1,000 people, on average, have crossed southwards each day for more than a year. South Sudan still maintains an “open door” policy. The Sudan war is just one of many current crises “forgotten” by many in the western world.

Rather than realising that it is impossible not to feel the ripples of global suffering, western countries are increasingly spending huge sums of money in ways that prop up dictatorships, militias and systems that oppress people further.

There is a constant dissonance. It has also been strange this week seeing the “visit Rwanda” message flash up on the TV during football matches, on the sleeves of Arsenal players and on the side of pitches, and even in my own kitchen, on a friend’s jersey (“It’s like it’s taunting me,” I told him.)

A lack of freedom of speech doesn’t mean no speech for anyone. Rwanda is also renowned for unleashing co-ordinated pro-government online campaigns against journalists. As early as 2014, one Twitter account known to attack critics was linked back to the president’s office.

Since going public with what happened to me, I have been besieged by tweets, including those that call me a white supremacist or “Karen”, and say that I am only trying to garner “clout” or attention. Some of the tweets were copy-and-pasted onto different accounts. “In Rwanda, they cage dogs when necessary,” one read.

If this deal goes ahead, it’s hard to see how anyone sent to Rwanda won’t have their narrative taken over by Rwandan and UK government communications people and PR firms, at risk of retribution if they speak out.