Explained | The U.K.’s plan to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda

Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel was in Rwanda on April 14 to sign a deal to fly some asylum seekers to the East African country

April 18, 2022 03:30 pm | Updated 05:57 pm IST

Britain will send migrants and asylum seekers who cross the Channel thousands of miles away to Rwanda under a controversial deal announced Thursday as the government tries to clamp down on record numbers of people making the perilous journey.

Britain will send migrants and asylum seekers who cross the Channel thousands of miles away to Rwanda under a controversial deal announced Thursday as the government tries to clamp down on record numbers of people making the perilous journey. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: British Home Secretary Priti Patel visited Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on Thursday, April 14, to sign what both countries have described as an “economic development partnership”, which will bring in force an arrangement to send asylum seekers “unofficially” arriving in the U.K. through the English Channel to Rwanda. The deal has attracted criticism from refugee organisations and the Opposition.

In a speech on Thursday morning, from the coast of the Channel in southeastern England, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced, “From today….anyone entering the U.K. illegally as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1, may now be relocated to Rwanda.” He described the move as an “innovative approach” fueled by his country’s “humanitarian impulse and made possible by Brexit freedoms”.

What is the deal with Rwanda?

Under the “economic development partnership”, asylum seekers who board trucks and small boats or dinghies from France to cross the English Channel and arrive in Britain will be flown 6,500 km away to Rwanda, which will handle the processing of their asylum claims.

Ms. Patel, who signed the deal in Kigali on April 14 in the presence of the Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, put out a video on Twitter calling the deal a “world-leading migration partnership” that can see those arriving “illegally to the U.K. by dangerous methods” relocated to Rwanda to have their claims for asylum considered; and if granted refugee status, “to build their lives there”.

Mr. Johnson’s government said on April 15 that relocation of such individuals arriving in the U.K. could be seen happening within weeks. The deal would be active for five years on a pilot basis.

At the time of signing the deal, Ms. Patel stated: “those who are resettled (in Rwanda) will be given the support, including upto five years of training with help of integration, accommodation, so that they can resettle and thrive.”

Mr. Biruta said the agreement “is about ensuring that people are protected, respected, and empowered to further their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they choose.”

He added that the country already hosts more than 130,000 refugees from countries including Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.

Although it is not clear how much the British government will be spending on the plan, it has made an upfront payment of £120 million ($158 million) to Rwanda to cover the cost of housing and integration of the asylum seekers till their applications are processed in Rwanda. The Times UK reported that it could cost the country £20,000 to £30,000 for every asylum seeker relocated to Rwanda.

The Guardian reported that once such asylum seekers arrive in Britain, the “strength of their asylum claim” and the way they travelled would be considered. If it is decided that the individuals need to be removed from the country, they would be given five days’ notice during which they can make representations to support their claim. However, there is no provision for appealing the government’s decision.

The government has not made it clear whether the scheme will apply to all of those arriving illegally or onlyto single men, as was previously reported. Mr. Johnson said, however, that the deal with Rwanda was “uncapped” and could see “tens of thousands of people” being resettled in the African country in the years to come.

He said that under the new arrangement, the Royal Navy would be monitoring the English channel and would be charged with responding to small-boat crossings.

Why is the deal being signed?

When Britain decided to withdraw from the European Union, one of the key themes of the campaign to leave in 2016 was that of taking control of immigration. In the wake of the migrant crisis of 2015, when more than one million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, there was a divide between how different EU countries responded; some welcomed the migrants, while some made their immigration policies more stringent, essentially closing the door to migrants. Most of the immigrants had arrived by sea and land, making dangerous journeys to flee war and persecution in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and African countries.

After leaving the EU, Britain took control of legal migration and changed its immigration policy, giving entry to those who want to work in the U.K. through a points-based system.

Mr. Johnson has called the current deal with Rwanda a way of taking “control of illegal migration”, now that EU rules don’t apply.

In the last couple of years, many migrants and asylum seekers have made unsafe journeys through the English Channel to reach the U.K. by small boats, many organised by smugglers or traffickers who take money to put them on these boats.

The year 2021 saw the highest number of English Channel crossings to Britain, with over 28,000 people entering in boats, compared to 8,500 people in 2020. So far this year, 6,000 people have made it to the U.K. on boats. In November last year, 27 people trying to cross the Channel from France to the U.K. died when their boat deflated, in the most fatal incident of Channel crossing.

Ms. Patel has touted the new deal as a solution to break the “people smugglers’ business model” and to help prevent the “loss of life”. She said the new arrangement will assure that the ability to access the British asylum system is based on “need” and not the “ability to pay people smugglers”, adding that it will save the cost incurred by taxpayers in supporting illegal migrants.

Mr. Johnson echoed this, saying that those “who tried to jump the queue or abuse our system will find no automatic path to settlement in our country but rather be swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin.”

In the recent past, the administration has made multiple proposals to prevent English Channel crossings, from installing a “giant wave machine” to repel boats, to sending migrants to places including the remote Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar, which refused to accept such plans.

Even though Britain received over 56,000 asylum applications last year, which was the highest in nearly two decades, other European countries have received far more asylum applications and accepted more refugees than the U.K. has.

While Britain has allowed 83,500 asylum seekers so far under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Germany has accepted 2,32,000.

Why has the deal drawn criticism?

Several refugee and human rights organisations, and Opposition parties in the U.K. have been highly critical of the deal, terming it inhumane, unworkable, and a waste of public money.

The U.K. branch of the UNHCR has said that agreements of outsourcing the asylum process through third countries without proper safeguards are “eye-wateringly expensive, violate international law, lead to the use of widespread detention… and more smuggling, not less”.

It further said that the new arrangement shows that the U.K was “looking to shift its responsibility towards refugees, not share them”. The central UN refugee agency also said that asylum seekers and refugees were not to be “traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing”.

Former Conservative Party minister in the British Cabinet and current peer to the House of Lords, lawyer Sayeeda Warsi, called the deal “ineffective, costly, and cynical”.

“It’s also inhumane and shames our proud history as advocates of human rights and the (UN) refugee convention,” she said.

Another reason the arrangement has attracted condemnation is Rwanda’s own human rights record. Rights group Human Rights Watch has pointed out Rwanda’s “track record of extrajudicial killings, suspicious deaths in custody, unlawful or arbitrary detention, torture, and abusive prosecutions, particularly targeting critics and dissidents”. It added that Britain itself had raised human rights concerns about Rwanda on global forums in the past.

Calling the deal a “cruel and nasty decision,” Enver Solomon, representative of the U.K.-based organisation Refugee Council, said that the administration should instead focus on running an “orderly, humane, and fair asylum system,” and developing safe routes such a humanitarian visas, in order to replace the dangerous routes.

Many Opposition leaders, including the Labour Party’s Keir Starmer and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, have called the deal unworkable, extortionate, and a distraction from the fact that Mr. Johnson was recently fined over the ‘partygate’ controversy. Ms. Cooper warned that the deal would cost the British taxpayer billions of pounds during an already trying cost-of-living crisis in the country.

Conservative Minister in the Home Office, Tom Pursglove, however, supported the economic viability of the deal saying it will save money in the long run. Defending the initial £120 million cost the U.K will incur, he said: “We are spending £5 million per day accommodating individuals who are crossing (the English Channel) in hotels.”

What other countries have made such arrangements in the past?

Such arrangements in the past made by Australia, Israel, and Denmark have also invited criticism.

In 2013, Australia began sending asylum-seekers trying to make it to the country by boat to Papua New Guinea and the tiny atoll of Nauru, maintaining that none would be allowed to settle in Australia. The policy all but ended the people-smuggling ocean route from Southeast Asia but was widely criticised as a cruel violation of international duties by Australia.

Israel sent thousands of people to Rwanda and Uganda under a contentious and discreet “voluntary” scheme between 2014 and 2017. Few are believed to have remained there, with many trying to reach Europe.

In June last year, Denmark passed legislation that would allow it to offshore asylum seekers to third countries not in the EU, while their applications for refugee status are processed.

(With inputs from agencies)

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