U.K. Sends Asylum-Seekers to Rwanda, a Dangerous Development

TThe U.K. will deport Rwandan asylum seekers today under controversial new policies that could threaten the rule of law on asylum.

After last-minute legal challenges that tried to stop the chartered flight’s departure, it will depart late Tuesday night local time.

The flight, the U.K. government hopes, will be one of many to the East African country as part of a deal struck between Boris Johnson’s government and Rwanda in April. In exchange for an initial payment of £120 million ($155 million) plus operational costs, Rwanda has agreed to permanently resettle asylum seekers in the country.

According to Johnson, Rwanda has “capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead” and that there is no cap on numbers.

Prince Charles, Filippo Grandi of UN Refugees, as well the Church of England’s entire leadership, have all condemned these plans. The Prince of Wales privately described the policy as “appalling,” according to The Times of London—a significant assessment from the heir to the British throne, who is expected to maintain political neutrality.

A coalition of human rights charities—Care4Calais, Detention Action, and the Public and Commercial Services Union—sought an injunction on the flight but the claim was rejected by a high court judge on Friday, who said that there was a “material public interest” in allowing Home Secretary Priti Patel—herself the daughter of Indian migrants from Uganda who arrived in the U.K. in the 1960s—to implement immigration control measures. The appeal was denied by a higher court on Monday. Asylum Aid also tried to injunct the decision that same day.

“While we can still expect further legal challenges and last-minute claims, we have always maintained that everything we are doing is compliant with our national and international obligations,” a spokesperson for the Home Office, tells TIME.

ToufiqueHossain (one of the attorneys representing the coalition as well as some asylum seekers) claims that seven out of more than 100 persons originally to be deported to Rwanda will be on board the plane. Others have won individual cases to defer their deportation.

“This policy goes to the very heart of challenging human dignity, and is in breach of both domestic and international law,” says Hossain, referring to the U.K.’s Human Rights Act 1998 and the multilateral U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention, which enshrine asylum seekers’ right to protection.

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What is the significance of the asylum deal

What makes the deal different to, and campaigners say, harsher than other countries’ offshore migrant processing programs is that people with successful claims to asylum will have to start their new lives in Rwanda.

Rwanda has a murky human rights record—the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented frequent attacks on freedom of speech, the abuse of LGBTQ+ people, and the use of excessive force against refugees. Some of these issues have been acknowledged by the U.K. But the Home Office spokesperson tells TIME that “Rwanda is a safe country and has previously been recognised for providing a safe haven for refugees.”

HRW and other organizations have accused the U.K. government, among others, of downplaying the risks and not taking action. “The government has wholly mischaracterized Rwanda, saying that it’s a Safe Third Country,” says Yasmine Ahmed, U.K. director of HRW. Since the 1994 genocide that saw more than 800,00 victims killed, Rwanda has made impressive progress in terms of development. Ahmed claims that this does not translate into a remarkable human rights record.

Even though the court rejected last minute attempts to stop the flight, they have not yet decided on whether the government’s policy was legal. The high court judge stated that it could take up to six weeks for the decision to be made. If it is found unlawful, the policy will allow those already sent to Rwanda to go back to the U.K. in order to apply for asylum. Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, one of the charities that sought the injunction, says that even the experience of the initial deportation could significantly “retraumatize” these individuals, many of whom say they are victims of trafficking and torture.

Moseley says that most asylum seekers felt extremely upset after Monday’s court hearing. She says an Iranian man, who is one of the seven due to fly out, couldn’t bear the idea of being separated from his adult son in the U.K., and his wife and two daughters who are still in Iran.

In a rare move, the U.N. Haut Commissioner for Refugees made a statement publicly disapproving of U.K.-Rwanda’s asylum policy. “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing,” the body said in a statement.

The political background of the deal

Having rode to victory in the 2019 general election on the promise to “get Brexit done,” Johnson has been under considerable pressure by Conservative Party members to take a hardline stance on migrants. The 2016 Brexit campaign was characterized by a desire to “take back control” of Britain’s borders, given the free movement of E.U. The U.K. also welcomed 1.3 million refugees and nationals in 2015. Pew Research Center reports that the U.K took in the lowest number of asylum seekers relative to its population.

“We must ensure that the only route to asylum in the U.K. is a safe and legal one,” Johnson said on Apr. 14, in Kent (southeast England), where more than 30,000 people arrived on the beaches in boats last year from across the English Channel.

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“Those who try to jump the queue or abuse our systems will find no automatic path to set them up in our country, but rather be swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin,” Johnson said at the time. The risk of ending up in Rwanda should be a “considerable deterrent” to people seeking safety in the U.K, he added.

Brexit’s paradox is that it makes the U.K. less likely to accept responsibility for those who have traveled through Europe to seek asylum. E.U. Member states are allowed to send migrants back to the country where they came from within the E.U. Critics claim that the U.K. has now sought to offset its exclusion from these laws by implementing the Rwandan deal.

While the U.K. is considered the original European country to follow this policy, Australia has been using similar tactics since 2012 and Israel from 2015. From 2013 through 2021, data shows Australia has transferred over 3,000 asylum seekers from the sea to its offshore processing centers in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. HRW found evidence of abuses, mental neglect, living conditions that were substandard, as well as suicides in camp detainees. Many people are stuck indefinitely, and cannot return home to safety or be accepted into Australia.

Critics argue that Australia’s externalization of the asylum process, which costs the government approximately 1 billion Australian dollars ($691 million) a year, has failed to deter further sea crossings. The government has shown that more asylum seekers arrived by boat to Australia during the 12 first months of the off-shore policy than ever before.

Israel struck a deal in 2015 with an unnamed African country—reportedly Rwanda or Uganda—to accept refugees who fled to the country. The asylum seekers were given the choice of returning to their home country—mainly in north and east Africa, accepting a payment of around $3,270 and plane ticket to the east African countriesOr being taken to prison in Israel. According to government figures, around 30% of irregular migrants had fled Israel by 2018.

Although the U.K. won’t be the first country to trial the offshore asylum system, experts believe it sets a dangerous precedent that other high-income countries may follow. Seeing a major economy pursue this approach risks “legitimizing the abdication of countries’ responsibility by outsourcing, and shifting the burden to the Global South,” says Lutz Oette, co-director of the Center for Human Rights Law at SOAS, University of London.

The next steps?

Denmark declared that they were in discussions with Rwanda for a similar arrangement, a week after U.K. announced their agreement. On Jun. The Danish parliament then passed a bill to permit asylum seekers who arrive in Denmark to be transferred to other countries. While their claims are being considered.

Campaigners also worry that, if more countries like Denmark follow the U.K.’s example, it could undermine the principle of asylum seeking on a global scale. “This is ripping the protections established after the Second World War apart and fundamentally undermining the idea of global responsibility sharing,” says Ahmed.

And despite the ethical concerns, high costs, and wave of legal challenges that the U.K. government may face under the Rwanda program, experts tell TIME that lawmakers appear committed to pursue the removal of asylum seekers from the country—if only to appear tough on migration. “It’s quite clear that even if one person ends up getting on the plane, they want that plane to go,” says Hossain. “They want it to be a point of principle, to let people know that they are actually going ahead with this, which is terrifying for refugees seeking safety in the U.K.”

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