Asylum in the UK: a one-way trip to Rwanda?
The UK government recently announced a plan to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda. Evidently a move by an under-pressure prime minister to placate a right-wing support base, the deal may also offer Rwanda’s authoritarian government an opportunity to present itself as a good international partner and safe haven for migrants. But the plan will do nothing to address the many problems, including conflict, repression, poverty and climate change, that cause desperate people to flee their countries. Asylum seekers should be treated not as problem to be hidden from sight but as fellow humans deserving empathy and solidarity.
It’s around 6,500 kilometres from the UK to Rwanda. That’s the distance asylum seekers would be forced to travel under a recently announced deal to remove them from the UK to East Africa. It would be a one-way ticket: even when asylum claims were successful, people wouldn’t be allowed back into the UK, but would be expected to settle in Rwanda.
A politically motivated move
The idea seems to be that the prospect of removal will act as a deterrent to prevent people coming to the UK. Each year thousands risk their lives crossing the English Channel in small boats ill-equipped for rough sea conditions. At least 28,431 people came to the UK this way during 2021, despite the government’s continuous tightening of immigration rules.
Clearly something isn’t working. People keep crossing despite the risks and despite the fact that if they make it they’re likely to face a lengthy wait for a decision with a strong chance of claims being denied. While waiting, they live in grim conditions and are denied basic rights, such as the right to work. To come to the UK they pay fortunes to people traffickers who charge exorbitant fees and have zero regard for their safety. None of these barriers have stopped people, but the government’s hope is that its threat to move people halfway across world will put them off.
People are taking dangerous routes because safer ways have been closed. As the UK government has strengthened border checks, other routes, such as the France-UK tunnel, have become impossible. There are no safe and legal ways for asylum seekers to reach the UK and no means to apply for asylum from outside. The UK claims it wants to tackle the people-trafficking industry – but by making it impossible to get to the UK any other way, it continues to create demand.
Although the UK generally receives far fewer asylum seekers than other major European countries – six asylum applications per 10,000 people compared to a European Union average of 11 – immigration has been made a major political issue. The ruling Conservative Party has hammered home an anti-immigration message to attract working-class voters from the opposition Labour Party and see off the challenge of more right-wing parties, presenting stronger immigration control as a key Brexit benefit.
But right-wing newspapers daily feature sensational coverage of the arrival of boatloads of people, urging the government to do more to keep them out. A recent poll showed that immigration is among the issues the government is seen as performing most badly on.
The government has therefore talked up its intentions to get tougher. Before the announcement of its Rwanda deal, Albania and Ghana had been floated as potential host countries. But both were quick to distance themselves from the idea. Understandably neither was keen to be seen as a country deemed so bad to live in that it would deter migrants. At one stage the government was even said to be thinking of deporting asylum seekers to tiny Ascension Island, in the middle of the South Atlantic, or using wave machines to disrupt boats.
But then the government was able to strike a deal with Rwanda. The timing seemed driven by political calculation: the UK will hold municipal elections in May and the Conservative Party, rocked by numerous revelations of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s breaches of pandemic rules, fears extensive losses. A tough announcement on immigration might play well with core voters.
The evidently hasty announcement lacked detail, raising more questions than answers. The government stated it would pay Rwanda UK£120 million (approx. US$156 million) for a five-year arrangement, but it isn’t clear what the initial outlay covers or what will happen after five years. Nor is it clear how many people would be deported to Rwanda, what conditions they would live in and what rights they would have. People could end up dumped in refugee camps for years, with little prospect of receiving the support they need to claim their rights and rebuild their lives.
The UK government hasn’t shared the criteria it would use to decide who to send to Rwanda but has said the programme will be targeted at young men. That could make it harder to reunite families and even offer a perverse incentive for people traffickers to focus on bringing across women and children, who will be led to believe they will be safe from removal.
What’s in it for Rwanda
The real aim of the plan may be to reduce the visibility of the issue by shunting people thousands of kilometres away. But while emphasising the presumed deterrent effect, the UK government was in the awkward position of simultaneously insisting, in response to criticism of its plan, that Rwanda is a perfectly safe and hospitable country, accusing critics of talking Rwanda down.
Yet as recently as last year, the UK government was among Rwanda’s critics. When Rwanda’s human rights record was assessed in the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process in January 2021, the UK government urged Rwanda to investigate extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, forced disappearances and torture; protect journalists; and provide support to trafficking victims, including in government transit centres. It clearly had concerns about human rights, including the rights of migrants.
Those concerns are correct. Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame has increasingly concentrated power over his 22 years in office, and in 2015 rewrote the constitution so he can stay in power until 2034. He doesn’t tolerate independent civil society and ruthlessly represses those who express dissent. Recently, opposition politicians have been arrested and journalists jailed. Around 3,500 people are reported to have been targeted by the government with Pegasus spyware. In recent years several exiled dissidents have been assassinated.
At least part of what must make this partnership attractive to Kagame must be that the UK, a fellow Commonwealth country, will presumably feel less able to criticise his human rights record.
A creeping trend
The UN Refugee Agency criticised the plan, saying that the UK government appears to be trying to evade its international obligations by shifting its responsibilities onto another country, contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.
People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy.— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) April 14, 2022
They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.
- UNHCR’s @GillianTriggs on UK plan to export asylum to Rwanda: https://t.co/DThBQ5aDC4 pic.twitter.com/4DwDq9nt1n
It has been joined in its criticism by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England, who in his Easter sermon described the plan as ‘the opposite of the nature of God’, and by over 160 civil society organisations, which called the policy ‘cruel and immoral’ and a ‘breach of the Refugee Convention’.
The scheme is certain to face legal challenges that may mean it never gets off the ground. Johnson acknowledged this and indeed seemed to relish the prospect. The intention may be less about coming up with a workable plan than to start a political scrap that throws the opposition and human rights lobby on the back foot and regalvanises support for Johnson. Pro-government media are showing enthusiastic support and criticising those planning legal action as politically motivated. This is literally playing politics with people’s lives.
If the plan succeeds, human rights will be the all-round loser: both the rights of migrants shunted out of sight in Rwanda and the rights of Rwandans to speak out and mobilise, with international pressure on their government mitigated. More dangerously still, the UK’s move could embolden other countries to adopt similar approaches, normalising the essentially colonial idea that wealthy states can contract out management of their perceived problems to global south countries.
Human rights will be the all-round loser: both the rights of migrants shunted out of sight in Rwanda and the rights of Rwandans to speak out and mobilise, with international pressure on their government mitigated.
The UK government sadly isn’t the first. Australia’s right-wing government was the pioneer: in 2001 it introduced what it called the ‘Pacific Solution’, in which asylum seekers have been removed to detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The policy has suspended in 2007 but since it resumed in 2013 over 3,000 people have been transferred to offshore centres, where many are held indefinitely.
Australia’s scheme seems one of intentional cruelty. Many of those in detention have experienced deteriorating physical and mental health, with reports of self-harm and suicide. The government of Nauru has reacted to criticism of conditions in its centres by making it harder for civil society and the media to monitor them; it would be little surprise if Rwanda did likewise.
The government of Israel had a similar scheme with Rwanda and neighbouring Uganda between 2014 and 2017. But in practice it seems very few people stayed in East Africa and most went on to make their way to Europe, indicating that the policy was ineffective even on its terms.
Next could be Demark, which last year passed a law enabling it to move asylum seekers outside the European Union, potentially to Rwanda; for years Denmark’s mainstream political parties have responded to right-wing nationalist pressure by introducing stridently anti-migrant policies.
Time to do better
No one ultimately benefits from an international race to the bottom on asylum policies. If some countries succeed in displacing the problem elsewhere, many others will eventually adopt similarly harsh policies. Meanwhile nothing is being done to address the profound problems that cause people to flee: conflict, poverty, repression and, increasingly, the impacts of climate change.
The huge gap that’s now apparent between the compassionate response western states are rightfully showing Ukrainian refugees and the way they treat people from the rest of the world only makes clearer that there is nothing inevitable when it comes to migration policies: political choices are constantly being made and can be challenged. Civil society – in the UK and elsewhere – must keep mobilising to demand fairer treatment for asylum seekers regardless of their country of origin or the colour of their skin.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
- The UK government should halt its planned asylum policy and urgently consult with civil society on alternatives.
- Governments should hold Rwanda to account over its human rights violations rather than make deals to host asylum seekers there.
- Civil society should counter the narrative that presents immigration as a problem and migrants as a scapegoat for social ills, and advocate for policies of solidarity across the board.
Cover photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images