Proposals to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda: so many problems, it’s hard to know where to begin
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: One-way sign (jimfeng_iStock)
On 14 April 2022, the government announced its plan to send asylum-seekers who arrive in the UK via the ‘wrong’ route to safety, to Rwanda (Memorandum of understanding between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Rwanda for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement, signed on 13 April 2022 (MoU)). The factsheet accompanying the announcement asserts, with a straight face, that the aim of the Rwandan deal is to support those fleeing persecution, ‘giving them the best possible chance to rebuild their lives’, as well as to break the business model of the people-smuggling gangs in order to save lives (‘Factsheet: Migration and Economic Development Partnership’, Home Office in the media blog post, 14 April 2022).
It’s important to be clear about what this deal does. It is not just about ‘processing’ of asylum claims offshore, with accepted asylum-seekers being brought back to the UK; it is a one-way ticket to Rwanda, outsourcing the UK’s duties under the 1951 Refugee Convention to another country, wholesale.
The rhetoric surrounding the scheme is steeped in the idea of the ‘bogus’ asylum-seeker. The factsheet proclaims that those who enter the UK irregularly from a safe third country are categorically not fleeing peril, are abusing the asylum system and causing its ‘collapse’, are costing the taxpayer £1.5bn a year and are diverting resources from those in genuine need. As many have pointed out, refugee status cannot be denied to those who arrive irregularly. If it were possible to do so, the UK would barely have any obligations under the Refugee Convention at all.
According to the factsheet, the first removals are to take place in the coming months. They may commence relying on the existing Immigration Rules on inadmissibility (Immigration Rules Part 11 paras 345A–345C) or using new powers in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.1The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 introduces powers to declare as inadmissible asylum claims made by people with a connection to a safe third state (clause 15) and to remove asylum-seekers to a safe third country while their claim is pending (clause 28 and Sch 3). It received royal assent on 28 April 2022. Anyone who has arrived since 1 January 2022 ‘illegally, or by dangerous or unnecessary methods from safe countries’ will be considered. The scheme will initially apply to single men arriving on boats or lorries,2One-way ticket to Rwanda for some UK asylum seekers’, BBC News, 14 April 2022. though it is not restricted to that group in the long term.
Rwanda will provide accommodation while the individual’s asylum claim is being considered. The person will be free to come and go, and their essential needs will be met. Their claim will be determined by applying Rwandan law, the Refugee Convention, international human rights law and assurances given under the agreement. If it succeeds, they will be granted refugee status in Rwanda. The deal includes a ‘generous’ support package for recognised refugees (according to the factsheet), including training, accommodation and healthcare. If the claim is rejected, they can be removed to any country where they have a right to reside.
There are so many problems with this deal it is hard to know where to begin – perhaps with the obvious but important observation that treating some of the most vulnerable people on the planet as units to be traded for money is dehumanising beyond words.
Then there is Rwanda’s human rights record, which is very troubling. Human Rights Watch’s latest report on Rwanda records arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in detention facilities as ‘commonplace’ (Rwanda, events of 2021, Human Rights Watch World Report 2022). Just last year, the UK criticised Rwanda’s refusal to conduct proper investigations into torture, extrajudicial killings and deaths in custody.337th Universal Periodic Review: UK statement on Rwanda, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office/Julian Braithwaite, 25 January 2021. The UK also criticised Rwanda’s lack of compliance in the identification of trafficking victims it now wants to remove there.
If the aim of the deal is truly to support those fleeing persecution, reduce people-smuggling and save lives, it isn’t going to work. Israel tried something similar between 2014 and 2017, sending 4,000 asylum-seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. The UN found that only nine had stayed in Rwanda, six of whom were struggling to survive in Kigali.4Ilan Lior, ‘Asylum seekers deported From Israel to Rwanda warn those remaining: “Don’t come here”’, Haaretz, 2 February 2018. Research into the experience of those deported5Moving under threats: the treacherous journeys of refugees who ‘voluntary’ departed from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda and reached Europe’, Border Criminologies blog post, University of Oxford Centre for Criminology, 12 October 2018. found that: promises of asylum were not delivered; the lack of identity documents in Rwanda left the deportees vulnerable to robberies and arrests; and, critically, many were smuggled again and faced another brutal journey exposed to trafficking, the threat of detention and refoulement, destitution, violence and slavery along the way. So the measure resulted in more trauma, more exploitation and more people-smuggling.
Added to all of that, the deal is extremely expensive. In exchange for relocations (per para 19 of the MoU), the factsheet states that there is an initial investment of £120m as well as funding for each person relocated for processing to Rwanda (to provide for translators, legal advice, caseworkers, accommodation, food, healthcare and the integration package if they are granted status). The plan is so expensive and its success so uncertain that it required a Ministerial direction from the home secretary, Priti Patel, to proceed.6Patel personally approved Rwanda plan launch after civil servant concerns’, BBC News, 16 April 2022.
Finally, the preamble to the MoU asserts that it will enhance ‘burden-sharing’. It does precisely the opposite. The UNHCR said the measure is contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention,7UN Refugee Agency opposes UK plan to export asylum’, UNHCR press release, 14 April 2022. warning that it will only increase risks and pressure on front-line countries. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights accused the UK of ‘seriously undermining the global system of international protection’.8United Kingdom government‘s intention to offshore asylum processing to Rwanda sends a worrying signal’, statement from Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, 14 April 2022. It is a shameless attempt to use our economic power to buy our way out of our legal and moral obligations.
The prime minister said he expects the plan to be challenged in the courts by a ‘formidable army of politically-motivated lawyers’.9Jonathan Goldsmith, ‘Why does the prime minister keep attacking lawyers?’, Law Society Gazette, 19 April 2022. Well, lawyers have duties to their clients. We will do what must be done to protect their interests – that’s the job. The real objection here seems to be that the rule of law should apply to this group at all. I Stephanie Boyce, the president of The Law Society, put it neatly: ‘If the government wishes to avoid losing court cases, it should act within the law of the land.’10Para 23.2 of the MoU states that the five-year period of the agreement will not commence if a court order prevents its lawful operation or implementation.
 
1     The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 introduces powers to declare as inadmissible asylum claims made by people with a connection to a safe third state (clause 15) and to remove asylum-seekers to a safe third country while their claim is pending (clause 28 and Sch 3). It received royal assent on 28 April 2022. »
2     One-way ticket to Rwanda for some UK asylum seekers’, BBC News, 14 April 2022. »
3     37th Universal Periodic Review: UK statement on Rwanda, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office/Julian Braithwaite, 25 January 2021. »
5     Moving under threats: the treacherous journeys of refugees who ‘voluntary’ departed from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda and reached Europe’, Border Criminologies blog post, University of Oxford Centre for Criminology, 12 October 2018. »
7     UN Refugee Agency opposes UK plan to export asylum’, UNHCR press release, 14 April 2022. »
8     United Kingdom government‘s intention to offshore asylum processing to Rwanda sends a worrying signal’, statement from Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, 14 April 2022. »
9     Jonathan Goldsmith, ‘Why does the prime minister keep attacking lawyers?’, Law Society Gazette, 19 April 2022. »
10     Para 23.2 of the MoU states that the five-year period of the agreement will not commence if a court order prevents its lawful operation or implementation. »

About the author(s)

Description: Janet Farrell - author
Janet Farrell is a partner at Bhatt Murphy, London.