Rwanda expects the first group of about 50 asylum seekers to arrive from the United Kingdom by the end of May. The plan to 'offshore' asylum to the East African nation has attracted widespread criticism, forcing Britain to defend its decision before the UN.
An agreement between the United Kingdom and Rwanda is set to go ahead despite criticism from rights groups, opposition figures and the United Nations. Under the deal, some people who arrived in the UK on small boats across the English Channel will be able to be transferred to Rwanda, where they will have their claims for protection processed.
"The UK has informed the first group of about 50 that they'll be relocated, and we expect to hear soon from our UK partners when they'll arrive, likely in the next few weeks," Rwanda's deputy government spokesperson, Alain Mukurarinda said in a statement.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel also confirmed that the wheels were in motion to start implementing the deal, announcing on Thursday that a "first tranche of illegal migrants with no right to be in the UK have now been notified" of the intention to relocate them to Rwanda.
Patel, however, declined to specify exactly how many people would be sent in the first transfer or how many people overall might be sent to Rwanda under the plan, stating that "we don't share our operational details."
'Freedom' in Rwanda
The Rwandan government took a number of journalists on a tour of hostels that are being adapted to house the UK asylum seekers.
Ismail Bakina, the manager of the Hope Guesthouse, said the arrangement was such that for each migrant housed at the hostel, the UK government will pay the equivalent of about $70 per day, which also includes meals. The UK government has said the plan to send people to Rwanda would initially cost the government about $158 million in total.
Mukurarinda added that claims that asylum seekers could be detained against their will in the facilities was unfounded:
"They will not be locked up, they will be in the sites you have visited, they will be able to leave and enter. At some point once their status has been fixed, they will have to go and live with other Rwandans. But they will be free. They will not be prisoners," he told the Reuters news agency.
Disrupting smugglers and traffickers
Last month, while presenting the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, the British government said that it would deal a major blow to the business model of people-smuggling gangs.
Under the plan, asylum claims lodged in Britain will be processed in Rwanda, and if successful, asylum seekers will be given the right to settle there. The deal, however, is expected to be challenged in British courts, and experts have said that it might fail.
As part of its departure from the European Union ('Brexit'), the UK has sought to explore new pathways to crack down on irregular immigration across the English Channel. Last month, parliament passed the UK Nationality and Borders Act, which penalizes those who arrive in the UK without a visa or equivalent documents.
The controversial reforms also include life sentences for people smugglers.
In 2021, more than 28,000 migrants and refugees made the crossing from mainland Europe to Britain on dinghies and inflatable boats.
Questionable rights record
The plan has drawn concerns about Rwanda's human rights record, which even the British government regards as problematic, according to a report published as recently as last year.
Nevertheless, while announcing the new asylum deal with Rwanda on April 14, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Rwanda was "one of the safest countries in the world."
Campaigners from around the globe accuse Rwandan President Paul Kagame's government of crushing dissenting voices and running the country in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
Kagame, however, said that Rwanda was "actually helping" in dealing with the migration situation in Europe, describing the deal as an "innovation" originally put forward by Rwanda.
Kagame argued that Rwanda has decades of experience in hosting refugees — mainly from neighbouring countries. According to UN figures, Rwanda hosted more than 127,000 refugees as of September last year, the majority of whom were Congolese nationals, followed by Burundians.
UN doubtful about plans
Despite reassurance from both countries, international bodies such as the UNHCR remain unconvinced about the UK-Rwanda deal.
On Twitter, the agency said that "(p)eople fleeing war, conflict and persecution" should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing."
Britain and Rwanda have sent government representatives to meet with top officials from the UNHCR and the UN Office of the Human Rights Commissioner (OHCHR) to discuss further details of the plan.
In addition to voicing their concerns regarding Rwanda's human rights records, UN officials have also said that the move to outsource the UK's immigration policy is against the international Refugee Convention.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta meanwhile told the Associated Press news agency that it was "fine that they be concerned," adding that he hoped to convince critics and "bring them on board" to work with the two countries in implementing the asylum deal.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel has insisted the plan is ultimately about saving lives of people by stopping smugglers from taking migrants on dangerous journeys across the English Channel.
"(T)he status quo is simply not acceptable anymore."
with Reuters, AFP, AP