In April, the government signed an agreement with the East African nation Rwanda to send migrants who arrive in the UK and who are deemed ‘inadmissible’ – that is they have arrived without a visa and through an unofficial route – to detention centres in Rwanda. They will be detained in the UK pending acceptance of transfer by the Rwandan government and will then be taken by chartered flight 4,000 miles to Rwanda where they will have the opportunity to claim asylum. They will not be given refugee status in the UK. If their application to stay in Rwanda is unsuccessful, or they decline the opportunity to settle, they will be deported to their country of origin. The scheme will apply to families, including those with children, as well as single men but not to unaccompanied children. Importantly, this scheme has not been much debated in Parliament but has been pushed through by the rarely used ‘ministerial direction’. This suggests that the Home Secretary over-rode the misgivings of senior civil servants and, indeed, the Home Office has now published the concerns of her Permanent Secretary who doubted the scheme would work and thought it could waste public funds. An initial sum of £120mn has been already been paid to Rwanda as part of its Economic Transformation and Integration Fund, but the scheme will cost far in excess of this. A former Conservative Minister suggested it would be cheaper to house asylum seekers in the Ritz!
The scheme is said to be aimed at disrupting the business model of people smuggling and deterring people from using unofficial routes. The Prime Minister described the scheme as compassionate and as saving lives: ‘we have an excellent policy to try and stop people drowning at sea.’ He also claimed that the majority of those coming into the UK via the Channel are economic migrants and not refugees.
The scheme has some popular support. A poll of more than 1,000 adults carried out by Savanta for the Daily Mail found that well over half supported the scheme compared with just over a quarter who opposed it. The figures for Labour voters, however, were closer: less than two fifths supported it, but over a third opposed it. However, less than two fifths of those polled thought the scheme value for money (based on the £120mn figure already paid, and before knowing the real cost). Less than half thought it would be effective in deterring people smugglers, and two fifths thought it would be ineffective.
Similar Schemes Elsewhere
The scheme is based on the similar off-shore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea set up by the Australian government. Men, women and children were sent there into conditions described by the UN as inhumane. The chief executive of Refugee Action said there was ‘rampant abuse in [the] camps, as well as rape, murder and suicide’. Elahe Zivardar, an Iranian artist, architect, photographer and documentary maker who fled Iran in 2013 ended up spending six years in Nauru until, in 2019, she was accepted as a refugee by the US. She says that Nauru was not a processing centre but a prison – ‘a place of torture, humiliation, cruelty and racism.’ She believes Australia got away with these horrors because the media were banned from Nauru. It is said to cost the Australians £568mn a year or £1.4mn per asylum seeker sent to Nauru or Manus Island. A 2021 report by Sydney University’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law concluded that Australia’s off-shore processing system was ‘cruel, costly and ineffective’ and recommended that it should immediately be brought to an end.
Israel introduced a similar scheme between 2014 and 2017 whereby those rejected for asylum and other illegal immigrants were given the ‘choice’ of being deported to their country of origin or accepting a payment of $3,500 and a plane ticket to Uganda or Rwanda. This was suspended by the Supreme Court in 2019 and also attracted mass protests and international criticism.
How Safe is Rwanda?
It is true that the Rwandan economy is on an upward trajectory and that Rwanda is safer than it was. But on 25 January 2021, the UK government had no illusions about its human rights record. Its statement on Rwanda at the 37th Session of the Universal Periodic Review (a process which involves a review of the human rights record of all UN Member States) says it remained concerned by continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom and urged Rwanda to model Commonwealth values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. It recommended that Rwanda conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extra-judicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture and bring perpetrators to justice. It also recommended screening, identifying and providing support to trafficking victims, including those held in government transit centres. You can read the statement here https://bit.ly/39vpvGN.
More recently, in its Annual Report on the State of Human Rights 2020/21, Amnesty International stated of Rwanda that violations of the rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression and privacy continued, alongside enforced disappearances, allegations of torture and excessive use of force: https://bit.ly/3kDHrBp. We really do have to take issue with our Prime Minister’s assertion that Rwanda is ‘one of the safest countries in the world.’
On 21 March, before the announcement that asylum seekers were to be sent to Rwanda, Ian Birrell wrote in the inewspaper an article headed ‘Two autocrats and a tale of hypocrisy: Contrasting responses to Putin and Kagame exposes UK as shallow’. To paraphrase his article: this is a tale of two dictators. Both have a background in espionage, both are masters at controlling their countries by crushing dissent, stifling democracy and stealing elections, both imprison or kill political foes, even those who fled to other countries for sanctuary, both silence journalists and use state-controlled media to further their rule, both treat state assets as their own and both invade neighbouring nations with disastrous consequences for innocent people. Putin is now public enemy number one. But Paul Kagame (above, second left), President of Rwanda since 2020, can match Putin for ‘chilling repression and cold-hearted ruthlessness.’ Some see him as implicated in scores of serious human rights abuses, including crimes against humanity and genocide (see the Open Society Foundations’ discussion at https://osf.to/38PYCNI. Yet Britain props up his regime, trains his troops and now plans to transfer potentially vulnerable men, women and children to Rwanda rather than taking responsibility for them itself.
Concerns about the Scheme
The scheme has already attracted considerable criticism. A former Home Office Permanent Secretary described it as ‘inhumane…morally reprehensible…probably unlawful and…unworkable.’ The director of survivor empowerment at Freedom from Torture, himself a former refugee, said that refugees in Rwanda would have no human rights, would not be integrated and that the UK is going to ‘create hell’ for anyone sent there. Refugee Action described the scheme as a ‘grubby cash-for-people plan’ that is a ‘cowardly, barbaric and inhumane way to treat people fleeing persecution and war’. The president of the Law Society of England said that there are serious questions about whether or not the plans comply with international treaties which state that no one can be returned to a country where they would face ‘torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm’. She was also concerned that the government saw legal challenges as ‘politically motivated’, suggesting that, if the government followed the law, there would be no basis for a challenge. The Archbishop of Canterbury described the scheme as ‘the opposite of the nature of God.’ And the director of refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International said that the reasons people make perilous journeys would not change and went on to say ‘frankly, [the deal] may turn out to be more dangerous than boat journeys.’
There are concerns too about specific groups – for example, LGBTQ+ individuals could face persecution in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch last year found evidence that Rwandan authorities had detained more than a dozen LGBTQ+ people, accusing them of ‘not representing Rwandan values’. The Home Secretary claims that critics of the Rwanda scheme are xenophobic and are resorting to ‘lazy and sloppy characterisations’ based on ‘ignorance and prejudice.’ Absolutely they are not; they are based on Rwanda’s human rights record and the likelihood that the scheme will fail.
Will the Scheme Work?
The scheme effectively punishes people for attempting to flee to safety. The vast majority of those seeking asylum after crossing the Channel are not economic migrants as the Prime Minister claims, but come from war-torn or repressive regimes like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and the Horn of Africa.
They are, therefore, eligible for refugee status in the UK, and research shows that currently 75% of those who arrive in the UK as asylum seekers are, indeed, granted refugee status. There is no evidence that the scheme will disrupt the business model of people smuggling as the smugglers will simply move to a new location to ply their trade – say, Kingali rather than Calais. Indeed, arguably, this scheme adds to the profitability of people-smuggling by limiting the legal means of seeking asylum. Nor is there any evidence that it will deter asylum seekers. In fact, since the scheme was announced, hundreds have made the Channel crossing in small boats. In interviews, asylum seekers in France have said they will still take the risk in the hope that they can land undetected, or be given asylum as genuine refugees. Moreover, as the crossing is now patrolled by the Royal Navy with a responsibility for search and rescue, crossing has actually become safer.
A better alternative would be to speed up the processing of asylum seekers in the UK, improve cooperation across the Channel, introduce more safe and legal routes into the UK for asylum seekers and work towards a new international convention for refugees and migrants.
The Latest Situation
The government hoped that by the end of this month the first flights would be leaving for Rwanda. However, at the time of writing, it has received ‘pre-action correspondence from a number of legal firms’, the first stage in legal challenges. The first flights are, therefore, unlikely to take place for several months at the earliest. The scheme may already be dead in the water.