Illegal, Impractical, Immoral: The Controversial UK-Rwanda Asylum Plan

On 20th July 2022 US Senator Bob Menendez wrote a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken voicing his concern over Rwanda’s internal politics. Menendez referred to the Nation’s poor human rights record, state-sponsored assassinations abroad, and support for a Renasant M23 Rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) among other issues. The letter was sent within the wider context of the UK’s Home Secretary – Priti Patel’s proposal to send asylum seekers in the UK to Rwanda so as to process their claims. The policy has been a source of controversy ever since it was announced, with supporters claiming that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda will disrupt the business model and motivation of human traffickers while providing a safe, humanitarian alternative to crossing the English Channel. Detractors meanwhile point out the illegality of the policy, and the moral aspect of it, that is, a lack of compassion. Moreover, they claim that Rwanda is an unsuitable place to send asylum seekers while arguing that the policy would not successfully deter smuggling gangs.

The UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development partnership, known also as the Rwanda plan, was first announced in a speech by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The policy aims to relocate undocumented Migrants or asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, asylum, and resettlement. Once in Rwanda, migrants will be temporarily accommodated in the capital, Kigali, as their claims are processed. If successful, migrants will receive permanent residency in the country as well as permanent accommodation. All claims are expected to take up to three months to process. After resettling in Rwanda, migrants seeking asylum would not be allowed to return to the UK. The plan has an initial five-year implementation plan, as agreed between Priti Patel and the Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta on the 13th of April 2022.

Though its stated aims are to decrease the frequency of migrant crossings via the English Channel and stop human smuggling, criticism of the policy has arisen throughout the world. Steve Valdez Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director has stated that “Sending people to another country – let alone one with such a dismal human rights record – for asylum ‘processing’ is the very height of irresponsibility and shows how far from humanity and reality the Government is on asylum issues.” He continues, “this shockingly ill-conceived idea will go farther in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money.” Moreover, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has criticised the impracticality of the policy. Assistant High Commissioner Gillian Triggs claims that “the last time this was tried it ignominiously failed when the Israelis moved Eritreans and Sudanese to Rwanda … they simply left the country and started the process all over again. In other words, it’s not actually a long-term deterrent.”

The policy could also contravene the 1951 UN refugee convention, which states that “No one shall expel or return a refugee against his or her will in any manner whatsoever to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.” The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has also challenged the policy on similar grounds. It is in this regard that Rwanda’s human rights record comes under scrutiny. In 2021 Rita French, UK International Ambassador for Human Rights to the UN Human Rights Council investigated Rwanda on “Allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.” These critiques indeed highlight some of the logistical and legal problems associated with the Rwanda Plan.

Writing for the Guardian, Selby Jenn asserts that the UK is set to pay Rwanda an ‘economic transformation and integration fund’ amounting to £120 million and will also fund the acceptance of each immigrant for between £20,000 and £30,000 for their relocation and temporary accommodation. Given the practical challenges associated with this plan, the UK taxpayer may fund an expensive policy that makes little difference to the amount of Channel crossings and people smugglers.

Priti Patel has hit back at condemnations of Rwanda’s government, claiming allegations against the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) have “undercurrents of just sheer xenophobia.” The Rwandan government insist that the country is safe and welcoming of refugees, noting that Rwanda has hosted more than 130,000 refugees, some of whom have stayed in Rwanda for more than 25 years. President Paul Kagame has accused his Western critics of being hypocrites, that they view and treat his government with a paternalism which undermines Rwandan sovereignty. In an April speech, Kagame defended the plan by striking a Pan-African chord. He claimed that the policy was a safer alternative for displaced Africans than crossing the Mediterranean via Libya. Kagame highlighted Libya’s statelessness and open-air Slave Markets, claiming that refugees who pass through Libya were more vulnerable to human trafficking.

Kagame’s alternative is threefold. Refugees will get the option to stay in Rwanda once processed, return to their home country elsewhere in Africa, or European countries can select from those staying in Rwanda, which refugees they wish to take into their countries. For Kagame, these conditions are more humane than allowing refugees to travel through Libya and risk being trafficked. Like the UK Government, Kagame says the policy can curb human trafficking and provide safer routes for refugees. The question remains whether this can be achieved and if the policy itself is legal.

What must also be considered is that long before this plan was initiated, academics, NGOs and other civil society groups had already been decrying what they call the ‘border surveillance industry’, a Global industrial complex expected to have a total value of $68 billion by 2025. Within this industry are companies including Serco, Elbit Systems, and G4S, who have all been handed lucrative contracts to oversee detention centres and the processing of asylum applications. The outcome has been human rights abuses, neglect, and in worst cases the torture of asylum seekers. Processing schedules often fall behind, leaving refugees stranded in these facilities for years with no hope of rebuilding their lives. Conditions in these centres are often sub-standard as Corporations charge extortionately for their services, before taking a large profit to pay off shareholders, leaving little money for providing humane living conditions.

In 2013, as part of Australia’s now infamous ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, some asylum seekers were taken to an “offshore processing centre” in Nauru, a small Island Northeast of Papua New Guinea, where they could stay while having their asylum applications considered. Construct, a private company, was awarded the contract to build and manage these centres. Conditions were inhumane while men, women, and children were stuck on the Island for years without being processed. Journalists were blocked from entering the Island. A whistle-blower doctor came forward revealing that mental health in the centre was dealt with in ways that amounted to torture: “If we take the definition of torture to mean the deliberate harming of people to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition.” On the issue of patient information, he says “people disclose a lot of personal information which is then recorded in notes that are available to non-medical people for other purposes.”

In the case of Rwanda this is a worrying issue given that questions now arise as to who will be contracted to manage asylum and refugee facilities, and what connection these firms may have with the Rwandan and UK Governments. It is well documented that Rwanda has a close security relationship with its Anglophone donors including the US, UK, Germany, and Israel. The UK meanwhile has a close security relationship with Australia. These nations often share information, expertise, and rely on the same multinational companies for services. Thus, the conditions evident in Australia’s Nauru processing centre could easily be replicated in Kigali, especially considering the RPF’s hostile attitude toward foreign journalists and crackdowns on domestic criticism. As the refugee crisis becomes more protracted, scholars have pointed out the increased militarisation of African borders by the US via AFRICOM and its regional allies, establishing border regimes that prevent refugees from escaping war-torn lands and entering the Global North. The EU has also been criticised for allegedly hiring human traffickers to intercept and return refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. This ‘fortress Europe’ exists as part of a wider Western led containment strategy. Knowing that the UK has only established legal and safe routes for Ukrainians, Afghans, and people from Hong Kong, only legitimizes the notion that there is a concerted effort to keep away as many refugees as possible. The Refugee Council has added that “for the vast majority of refugees, there is no safe way for them to seek asylum in the UK.” If true, the policy may be part of this containment strategy, based on Rwanda’s allegiance with Anglophone-Israeli security interests.

As of now, the policy has been hit with legal challenges that have stopped deportation flights, while the Rwandan government has recently stated it can only accept 200 refugees, instead of the up to 1,000 that were originally planned. Since April, 10,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel with numbers expected to rise. The policy meanwhile still costs over £120 million, only to transport fewer refugees and achieve even less in stopping people smugglers. The legality, ethics, and feasibility of this plan are thus still in question, with concerns looming as to who stands to profit from the plan as it begins to be scaled down while still maintaining the same high costs.

Simon Kamau


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