A new UK government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has been condemned by refugee and human rights groups. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Thursday that some asylum seekers would now be processed in the African country.
“Anyone entering the UK illegally as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 may now be relocated to Rwanda,” Boris said during a press conference in Kent. “We cannot sustain a parallel illegal system. Our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not.”
The prime minister said that the risk of asylum seekers ending up in Rwanda instead of the UK would be a “considerable deterrent” over time. Rwanda on Thursday announced that the UK’s interior minister, Priti Patel, had signed an agreement with the African country to send asylum seekers crossing the English Channel there.
The new arrangement would focus mainly on “single men arriving on boats or lorries and would see them given a one-way ticket for the 4,000-mile trip to Rwanda where they would be processed and, if successful, would have long-term accommodation in the African country,” BBC reported. In other words, if they are recognized as refugees, they would be granted refugee status there.
Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent 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.” Britain has paid $158 million “up front to pay for housing and integrating the migrants,” the Rwandan government said, according to the Associated Press.
Johnson has justified the deal despite it being criticized as cruel and inhumane. “We are confident that our new Migration Partnership is fully compliant with our international legal obligations, but nevertheless we expect this will be challenged in the courts, and if this country is seen as a soft touch for illegal migration by some of our partners, it is precisely because we have such a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who for years have made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government,” he said.
Last year, over 28,000 migrants and refugees crossed from Europe to Britain. Many of them were in small boats organized by smugglers. Some media reports indicate that the new controversial deal would involve only male asylum seekers. Whatever the case, outrage has greeted the deal.
“The UK is arguing that offshoring asylum seekers to Rwanda complies with its international legal obligations. However, offshore processing is not only cruel and ineffective, but also very likely to be unlawful,” a report by Human Rights Watch said. “It creates a two-tiered refugee system that discriminates against one group based on their mode of arrival, despite refugee status being grounded solely on the threat of persecution or serious harm and international standards recognizing that asylum seekers are often compelled to cross borders irregularly to seek protection,” the report added.
Australia has used offshore asylum processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru over the past 10 years in a policy that was also described by human rights groups as cruel and expensive. “We have seen the severe abuses resulting from offshore processing. Australia’s offshore detention regime on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, caused more than eight years of immense human suffering. Twelve people have died since the policy began in 2013,” Human Rights Watch said.
And even though Johnson said that Rwanda was “one of the safest countries in the world”, some rights groups disagree, accusing the country of several human rights violations, including the frequent harassment and arbitrary detention of government opponents.
“At a time when the people of the UK have opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians, the government is choosing to act with cruelty and rip up their obligations to others fleeing war and persecution,” Human Rights Watch said.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is also against the deal. Its Assistant High Commissioner, Gillian Triggs, said: “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”
The Home Office said the first people to be relocated to Rwanda will receive formal notifications in the coming weeks and the first flights should take place in the coming months.