On 14 April 2022, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel (left) and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta (right) sign a new asylum agreement. | Photo: AP
On 14 April 2022, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel (left) and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta (right) sign a new asylum agreement. | Photo: AP

The British government has announced a new deal to export its asylum claims procedure to Rwanda, which will host the refugees indefinitely. However, offshoring responsibility towards refugees to the autocratic East African country raises a number of serious legal, economic and ethical questions.

The UK government has announced plans to outsource the processing of asylum claims to Rwanda, over 4,000 miles (6,600 km) away. The move seeks to alleviate the UK of its obligations towards asylum applicants, instead paying the small East African state to do this externally.

Last week, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a speech "that anyone entering the UK illegally – as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 – may now be relocated to Rwanda".

Johnson went on to describe Rwanda, a country which has been criticized by the UK and internationally for its poor human rights record, lack of press freedom and authoritarian leadership, as one of the "safest countries in the world, globally recognized for its record on welcoming and integrating migrants".

The move raises a number of legal, practical and ethical questions in relation to the UK's responsibility towards refugees on its territory. In addition, the offshore approach poses logistical and financial hurdles, while raising serious human rights concerns over the treatment of refugees in Rwanda. Simply disposing of their legal obligations towards asylum seekers when they arrive on Rwandan soil seems highly problematic, however, determining the overall legality of such a scheme is a key issue for the UK courts to answer in the future.

In the meantime, the new deal has been slammed by critics who have questioned the timing of the announcement, calling it particularly suspect; as the government continues to face criticism for breaching lockdown restrictions last year and the country gears up for local elections on May 5. Therefore, these critics say, Johnson's cabinet has a significant incentive to move the headlines along in order to distract from the current pressure on the Prime Minister to resign or hold further inquiries into his conduct in parliament.

Johnson claims the policy mainly won't affect 'genuine' refugees

Johnson claimed "seven out of ten of those arriving in small boats last year were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees.

Adding that those attempted crossings, "are not directly fleeing imminent peril as is the intended purpose of our asylum system". Although his statements are not referring to specific research or official figures on migration, they play into negative public perception of refugees, particularly those from non-European states. In fact, migration statistics show that around two-thirds of those who do arrive in the UK, including via the Channel route, are granted asylum in the system, which throws into question the apparent distinction in Johnson's rhetoric between 'genuine' asylum seekers and 'queue jumpers.'

For the moment, the British government has presented the Rwanda plan as a "pilot scheme" that would be "restricted to mostly single men," however the wording of the deal contains no such limitations and it could in theory be applied to women and children too.

Former refugees speak out

Former refugees have also criticised the plan, like Dr Waheed Arian, a British doctor who was born in Afghanistan and fled his country several times because of fighting, first to Pakistan, and then finally to the UK. He offers an alternative view on his Twitter platform:

After arriving in the UK in 1999, Arian worked hard and studied at night in order to obtain five A Levels, (A Levels are the exams needed to obtain university entrance, most people do three or four when they are 18) according to his Wikipedia page, and gain entry to Cambridge University.

In 2010, he qualified as a medical doctor and has gone on to work in the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, as well as conduct humanitarian visits to Afghanistan and set up a charity helping doctors in low-income countries help their patients via smartphone.

Criticism from senior British figures

The idea of "extraterritorial processing" is nothing new and has previously been implemented (then abandoned) by Australia, and also by Israel who attempted to strike a similar deal with Rwanda until it was shelved following a Supreme Court ruling in 2017.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that refugees who refused to leave Israel could not be imprisoned indefinitely, and that those who went to Rwanda had to go willingly. The Danish government has also been holding talks with Rwanda over a similar scheme.

Senior legal experts in the UK have also criticized the new plans. Jessica Simor QC a senior lawyer from Matrix Chambers in London explained on Twitter that the proposed model will force refugees to remain in Rwanda permanently. She called the policy "people trafficking by the Government."

Some civil servants within the government were also unhappy about the plan, although for slightly different reasons. A letter to Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Priti Patel from the Home Office’s top civil servant, Matthew Rycroft, stated:

"The UK’s legal obligations end once an individual is relocated to Rwanda, and GoR [government of Rwanda] takes on the legal responsibility for that individual and for processing their claim in line with the Refugee Convention."

Rycroft adds that he does not "believe sufficient evidence can be obtained to demonstrate that the policy will have a deterrent effect."

As Rycroft attempted to point out, transferring responsibility towards vulnerable individuals fleeing violence to an autocratic regime, which has been accused of various human rights abuses against its own citizens, is hugely problematic. But more importantly, it is also likely to fail to achieve the desired result, of deterring more migrants from making the dangerous crossing from France towards the UK.

UNHCR condemns the plan

The attempts of other countries to take this approach has also proved to be both ineffective and costly. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) raised human rights concerns regarding the deal. Writing on Twitter, UNHCR pointed out that the Australian experience shows that outsourcing not only came at an immense financial and human cost while failing to deter boat journeys or save lives at sea, nor as Johnson is proposing did it "break the business model" of people smugglers...instead it is feeding into it.

Huge cost to UK taxpayers?

Althought the UNHCR points out that these kinds of plans are "eye-wateringly expensive" The British government said it would in fact be easing costs for its people. In his speech, Boris Johnson said that by implementing this plan, he wanted to alleviate the burden on the British taxpayer:

"We can’t ask the British taxpayer to write a blank cheque to cover the costs of anyone who might want to come and live here....Uncontrolled immigration creates unmanageable demands on our NHS and our welfare state, it overstretches our local schools, our housing and public transport, and creates unsustainable pressure to build on precious green spaces."

But some members of his party, felt that the cost of the plan was too much. The reported cost of up to £30,000 per person, was also described as "eye-watering" by former international development secretary and Conservative MP, Andrew Mitchell in the British newspaper The Guardian. He said that the scheme would not only prove "incredibly expensive" for British taxpayers but would also be impractical and immoral. A Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi wrote on Twitter:

Is it legal under national or international law?

Finally, many who seek to criticise the scheme point out that shifting responsibility of asylum could be problematic legally, this point has been looked into by a migration law expert. In an article, immigration law barrister, author and founder of the Freedom of Movement website and platform, Colin Yeo, stated: "The Immigration Rules already provide that any person who traveled to the UK through a safe country can have their asylum case declared inadmissible and face removal to any other safe country around the world willing to accept them."

Yeo explains that the main issue determining whether an asylum seeker can be returned to a "safe" country is whether the third country is willing to accept them, he notes however that Rwanda may now be that country.

Yeo points out that the UK does have obligations under international law, having signed and implemented a number of international conventions and legal instruments regarding asylum and refugees. For instance, the UK is party to the Refugee Convention, although the way it has been interpreted in the UK courts so far, does not explicitly prevent the removal of a refugee to a safe third country unless they possess leave to remain (residency permit).

However, Article 33 of the Refugee Convention prevents returning asylum seekers to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened for reasons relating to "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". It might be possible in theory to argue a breach of Article 33 for individual cases with regards to Rwanda, especially in relation to LGBTQI+ rights.

The UK is still a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which is both binding and enforceable. Removal to a "safe" country where a person’s human rights would be in danger of being violated would also be unlawful under the ECHR. Rwanda's human rights record remains problematic, particularly regarding the LGBTQ+ community, as well as for political opponents to the current regime, this could raise serious questions for a number of asylum seekers residing there.

If the UK courts take a similar approach to the Israeli Supreme Court, it is unlikely that a scheme which provides for asylum seekers to remain in Rwanda indefinitely could practically function, or only on the premise that they will go voluntarily.


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