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UK forges ahead with its controversial refugee plan

The countdown has begun for asylum seekers in the United Kingdom who are destined to be sent to Rwanda, where they will have to remain while their applications are processed.



The United Kingdom isn’t backing down from its controversial decision to send asylum seekers in the union to Rwanda. This is despite the strong criticism the plan has elicited, including legal challenges instituted against Priti Patel, the home affairs minister who is driving it.

The UK government announced that it will send the first group of refugees on 14 June and said those who are supposed to be on that flight have already received letters from the detention centres where they are being held. Patel didn’t divulge how the deportees were selected.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced in April that it would be outsourcing the country’s asylum obligations to Rwanda, a country with a questionable human rights track record, as part of a R2.3 billion, five-year economic development partnership between the two countries. Announcing the plan without revealing the details of how it would work, Johnson indicated that “tens of thousands” of asylum seekers in Britain would be sent to Rwanda, more than 6 000km away, on a one-way ticket. They would stay in the East African country while their asylum claims are processed.

The policy has been criticised as an excuse to detain “traumatised people” and widely condemned as inhumane. It has also been described as an expensive and unworkable endeavour by the UK government. Furthermore, it is contrary to international law, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) saying the UK was shifting its asylum responsibilities and evading international obligations with this deal.



Probably one of the biggest issues facing this arrangement is that relocating refugees and asylum seekers could amount to refoulement, meaning forcibly returning or sending them to a country where they face the possibility of persecution. This is contrary to international law and refugee conventions to which the UK is a signatory.

Although much of the details haven’t been revealed, experts have warned that the deal would rely on the principle of double voluntarism, which requires the UK and Rwanda to agree to each asylum seeker’s relocation. A process like this would be both costly and time-consuming.

The UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, said the refugee agency remained “firmly opposed” to any arrangements that sought to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third-party countries without sufficient protections for those being moved.

“Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention,” Triggs said in a statement. “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”

Unworkable and irrational

The UNHCR urged both the UK and Rwanda to rethink the deal. It warned that instead of deterring refugees and migrants from undertaking dangerous and life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean and other popular routes, such externalisation arrangements would only increase the risks they take. They would inevitably seek alternative routes, which could put more pressure on countries they are seeking to pass through.

The migrant news and information site InfoMigrants reported in May that a small legal firm, InstaLaw, based in Nottingham, England, had launched a legal challenge against the UK government’s plans. Stuart Luke, the partner who launched the application on behalf of an Iranian asylum seeker, said his client would face extreme hardship if he were to be sent to Rwanda.


“He could be the only Iranian in the country. There’s no network there, no community, no one who speaks the language. How’s he going to manage, survive? How’s he going to find a job, get educated?” Luke was quoted as saying.

19 May 2022: A worker stands next to a small-scale model of Hope House, a hostel in Kigali, Rwanda, which is getting ready for asylum seekers from Britain. It used to house genocide orphans. (Photograph by Simon Wohlfahrt/ AFP)

Echoing these concerns, many critics have pointed out that many of those seeking asylum in the UK are Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians, who would have major problems with basic issues such as language. Rwanda’s ability to integrate these new arrivals into its society is also a major concern.

There is also a major concern that other European countries could follow suit and adopt similar divisive immigration policies to deal with the influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Denmark, for example, has already faced much criticism for its asylum policies.

It declared Damascus and surrounding areas of the Syrian capital “safe” as it withdrew its internal protection from hundreds of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers inside its borders. Although those who lost their protection have not been deported yet, many have lost the right to work and have been forced to live in pre-deportation centres. In addition, Denmark plans to move its refugee reception centres to non-European Union countries – a project that has been slammed as xenophobic and dangerous by a number of European countries and non-governmental organisations.

An unwelcoming world

Anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies are becoming more common as a number of countries in Europe deal with increasing numbers of arrivals. In an attempt to earn support from voters, more countries are developing racist and xenophobic policies to keep migrants and refugees at bay.

Italy, for example, has extended a deal worth about $100 million with Libya to prevent people from crossing into Europe. The deal has entailed training the Libyan coastguard to “stem the influx of illegal migrants” by intercepting vessels crossing the Mediterranean and returning their passengers to detention camps in the North African country, where many are held indefinitely in inhumane conditions.


Elsewhere in the world, Australia has been sending asylum seekers to “offshore processing centres” in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The policy was designed to deter and punish those seeking asylum in Australia.


Human Rights Watch has said other countries “should learn from these horrors”, rather than be “repeating them” as Australia sent adults and children to live in substandard conditions in the processing centres, where they suffered abuse and neglect. “Australia’s abusive offshore processing policy has caused immeasurable suffering for thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Based on Australia’s experiences from the past decade of offshoring asylum seekers, there is little evidence that it actually prevents people from arriving “irregularly” in the country. Deterrence-based policies have failed to stem the movement of migrants and refugees in most countries – all it does is force them into taking greater risks to cross borders.

This article was first published by New Frame.