Rwanda asylum plan: a safe haven for refugees or a cruel farce?
Plans to send migrants 4000 miles to Rwanda have been bitterly criticized for violating human rights and being unlawful. Benedict Thompson evaluates the future of UK immigration policy in the shadow of the resulting judicial review of the Rwanda asylum plan.
A Migration and Economic Development partnership was agreed between the UK and Rwanda in April 2022, developed by then Home Secretary Priti Patel under the Johnson administration. The agreement was introduced as a remedy to halt the illegal immigration of just under 30,000 migrants into the UK across the English Channel. In return, the UK is providing £120 million funding to Rwanda.
Earlier this year in June, the first flight to Rwanda was cancelled following an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights, and no asylum seekers have yet been sent to the country. While negotiations and protracted legal issues continue, many people are still cramming into small inflatable boats and making the journey from France to England.
The deal has been controversial from the start, meeting with a range of opposition from many quarters. It has been described as “appalling” by King Charles III, “cruel and nasty” by the Refugee Council and even “evil” by Ian Blackford. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the deal breaches the UK’s obligations under refugee and human rights laws.
The deal has been controversial from the start, meeting with a range of opposition from many quarters
But Priti Patel has pushed back about how the role of Rwanda is being questioned. She describes Rwanda as “an incredible country”. The current Home Office has maintained this position, saying in a statement that Rwanda “is a safe country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers”.
What is happening with the judicial review?
The resulting judicial review into the agreement is a complicated process challenging many aspects of government policy and could last up to a year. It involves legal claims from refugee charities including Care4Calais and Detention Action, as well as challenges from individual asylum seekers.
The main argument of the claimants is simple: that the deal is unlawful under international refugee law. The 1951 Refugee Convention principle of non-refoulement states that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
Therefore, the High Court is hearing evidence that Rwanda is a dangerous place for migrants, with Raza Husain KC for the challengers alleging Rwanda is an “authoritarian state with extreme levels of surveillance that…imprisons, tortures and murders” opponents.
A memorandum of understanding agreed between the countries means the British government cannot offer any form of security to migrants sent there
There is also another line of defense. Lawyers representing the claimants have referred to internal government communications as evidence that the British government repeatedly ignored warnings over Rwanda’s poor human rights record. For example, Britain’s High Commissioner to Rwanda, Omar Daair, advised Priti Patel not to pursue the deal over accusations that Rwanda has been “recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries”.
In October, a second hearing will take place, brought by the charity Asylum Aid. The decisions in both cases will be announced together.
Is Rwanda safe for migrants?
A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was established as part of the agreement, meaning that the UK will hand over responsibility to Rwanda for dealing with potential migrants. This means that the British government cannot offer any form of security to migrants sent there.
There is evidence that human rights have been violated in Rwanda on a grand scale. Between 2010 and 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that Rwanda’s military frequently tortured people, using cruel methods including electric shocks and asphyxiation.
There have been reports that Rwanda’s Investigation Bureau killed several people attempting to resist arrest or escape police custody. There were no public investigations into these murders or for the disappearances of political opponents, which Rwanda’s Defence Force was reportedly responsible for, revealing a lack of transparency that permeates the criminal justice system.
It doesn’t end there.
In March, Human Rights Watch said that Rwanda did not match up to international standards of free speech and warned of a wave of arrests of Rwandan journalists. Rwanda’s government has also been accused of harassing political opponents and some independent candidates have reported that local authorities prevented them from gathering signatures in certain areas.
Meanwhile, a report found that the government was often intolerant of public reports of human rights abuses and suspicious of local and international human rights observers. The lack of accountability found in these reports has raised chilling suspicions about Rwanda’s government and whether they can be trusted to protect migrants potentially sent there.
What is the policy’s future under Liz Truss’ government?
Whether by design or not, the agreement is causing political divisions.
If the government wins the second case in October, anyone entering the UK illegally could be sent to Rwanda, with no limit on numbers. Liz Truss has stated that she would “support and extend” the Rwanda migration agreement “to more countries”. Meanwhile, new Home Secretary Suella Braverman rather bizarrely stated that it is her “dream” and “obsession” to see a front-page picture of a plane taking off to Rwanda on the Telegraph.
According to the MoU, the agreement will last for five years, with the possibility of extension. Rwanda’s government has said that it has capacity for 1000 migrants during the next five years, but has capacity for more in the future.
But there are questions about costs and practicality. It is estimated that it will cost between £20,000 to £30,000 to remove each asylum seeker to Rwanda. The Guardian has reported that this is comparable to current processing costs in the UK. A senior civil servant also wrote to Priti Patel stating, “I do not believe sufficient evidence can be obtained to demonstrate that the policy will have a deterrent effect significant enough to make the policy value for money”.
It is estimated that it will cost between £20,000 to £30,000 to remove each asylum seeker to Rwanda, comparable to current processing costs in the UK
An important case study in evaluating the policy is Rwanda’s previous refugee partnership with Israel. UNCHR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, said, “the last time this was tried it ignominiously failed when the Israelis moved Eritreans and Sudanese to Rwanda, they simply left the country”.
But the British government argues that the Rwanda asylum plan can still be a deterrent. To prove that, the policy needs to be deemed legal.