On April 14, 2022, the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, signed the U.K. and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the United Kingdom and Rwanda. Under this MoU, most migrants who have made their way to the U.K. via unauthorised routes on or after January 1, 2022 will find themselves redirected to a holding centre in Rwanda where they will wait for the Rwandan government to make decisions on their asylum applications. For their assistance in hosting adult and non-criminal migrants, the U.K. will pay Rwanda £120 million along with an unspecified amount per migrant. The U.K. government refers to this as a humane solution that will deter people-smuggling operations run by gangs that charge desperate migrants from several war-torn and developing countries exorbitant prices for transit, only to endanger them by putting them on unseaworthy boats to cross the English Channel.
Broader debate in the U.K.
While there is no doubt that people-smuggling operations need to be combated as they exploit and jeopardise vulnerable groups of people, the Rwanda asylum plan is not the most effective way to achieve this goal.
This plan needs to be seen in the context of the broader immigration debate in the U.K. In 2012, the Home Office implemented the Hostile Environment Policy that was meant to make it as hard as possible for any person who had arrived through an unauthorised route, to stay in the country. According to a 2020 report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, this policy not only fostered racism and discrimination against minority groups but also negatively impacted people who had legally arrived in the U.K. In the run-up to Brexit in 2016, more immigration controls were promised to regulate the flow of European Union workers, especially from Eastern Europe. In the right-wing British press, distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees are seldom made clearly. This almost deliberate conflation of categories has worked effectively to mobilise the stereotype of an immigrant as a poor, non-white, non-English speaking, benefits sucking and free medical care consuming person, who also may be a threat to national security.
In 2021, the Boris Johnson government introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill with one stated objective being to “deter illegal entry into the United Kingdom, thereby breaking the business model of people smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger”. The Rwanda asylum plan is the operationalisation of this objective.
What the key issues are
At the heart of the Rwanda asylum plan, is a set of moral, legal and political issues. First, the plan punishes asylum seekers for entering the U.K. using unauthorised routes. This is a clear violation of Article 31(1) of the Refugee Convention, 1951, which prohibits any state from penalising any person seeking sanctuary for entering the country illegally provided they present themselves to authorities on arrival. So, the plan actively discriminates against refugee and asylum claims made by those who do not arrive via an authorised route. The plan also contravenes Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which gives everyone the right to “seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.
Second, the Rwanda asylum plan is unclear on what economic, financial and health-care rights relocated persons will have once they are in Rwanda. The U.K.’s obligations for the well-being of relocated persons will end once they have boarded a flight to Rwanda, a country that struggles with its human rights record.
Third, there is very little evidence to suggest that such a plan will work to combat people smuggling operations. However, we do need to ask why people resort to using unauthorised means of entry to the U.K. British immigration laws make it very difficult for people without money and documentation to find their way into the country for asylum, thereby forcing extremely vulnerable people to use clandestine migration routes. Also, there is no guarantee that people who have been forcibly flown to Rwanda will not try to attempt the same crossing into the U.K. again. In this case, the people-smuggling gangs will only increase their profits.
Fourth, let us look at some parallel cases. Rwanda had a similar deal with Israel which was scrapped in 2019. Israel deported a reported 4,000 people from Eritrea and Sudan to Rwanda and Uganda under a voluntary departure scheme. Many who reached Rwanda, also left shortly after and were found attempting to reach Europe precisely through the same people-smuggling routes. Those who stayed had difficulty finding employment and many were left destitute. Similarly, Australia had an offshoring deal with Papua New Guinea and ran a processing facility on Manus Island. The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court found the facility “illegal and unconstitutional” in 2017 and directed Australia to pay Australian $70 million as compensation to the 2,000 detainees at the centre. Its other processing facility on Nauru has been reported to have detainees with declining mental health who are at risk of self-harm; reports of child abuse and sexual abuse in the facility have also surfaced.
So, who exactly is being protected when vulnerable people seeking refuge are forced to relocate to a country that has shown scant regard for rights and freedoms? Further, does not the forced relocation of already exposed and vulnerable people make them worse off? Ms. Patel has described her plan as “world-class and a world first”. It is neither. Similar experiments touted as humane policies to combat trafficking in migrants and refugees have failed and cost countries such as Australia more taxpayer money than if they had simply processed asylum applications and worked on integrating people into their communities. The U.K. has now shown that it is quite eager to run afoul of its international legal obligations along with demonstrating that it is willing to pay millions to build new systems of discrimination against people from the global south and view them as commodities. The question to put before the British government is this: when did abdication of a state’s responsibility towards any human being become ethical?
Vasundhara Sirnate is a political scientist and journalist. She is also the creator of the India Violence Archive, a citizen’s data initiative aimed at recording collective public violence in India