A judge will decide whether a UK government adviser's comments about Rwanda's human rights record should be announced publically or not | Photo: Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament via AP / picture alliance
A judge will decide whether a UK government adviser's comments about Rwanda's human rights record should be announced publically or not | Photo: Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament via AP / picture alliance

The British government was reportedly warned, several times, by its own advisers that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda might not be a sensible policy.

Three media organizations in the UK, the BBC, The Guardian and The Times have asked the government to make public the advice it received prior to announcing its Rwanda policy for asylum seekers in April.

The freedom of information request comes as a legal review is underway into whether the British government should be able to continue with its policy of sending would-be asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their claims processed there.

Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on a visit to Rwanda in June, said of the policy: "I am not going to pretend that the Rwanda Policy is the single magic bullet, but I think it can make a big difference."

According to reports on the BBC and the Guardian, the government was indeed warned by its own advisers prior to announcing the policy in April that there were still concerns about Rwanda’s human rights record and whether it was really the right place to send asylum seekers from the UK.

The BBC reports that the government is attempting to keep more of this adviser’s comments secret. According to the Guardian, the application from the government was made by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is also running to be the next Prime Minister if she wins the Conservative Party leadership race.

Legal review to start on September 5

A legal review of the policy should have begun in July but was postponed and is due to begin on September 5, the same day the new Conservative Party Prime Minister should be announced.

To date, no flights have actually taken off to Rwanda, after the first planned flight was grounded due to a last minute decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on June 14. However, both contenders for the leadership, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have declared that they would continue with the Rwanda policy, should they be elected.

On Tuesday (August 16), the British government asked the High Court to rule "that the case should not include 11 specific comments about Rwanda from an unnamed Foreign Office (FCDO) official," the BBC reported.

One of the residences the Rwandan government says it has set aside to house asylum seekers flown from the UK | Photo: Victoria Jones / picture alliance / dpa / empics
One of the residences the Rwandan government says it has set aside to house asylum seekers flown from the UK | Photo: Victoria Jones / picture alliance / dpa / empics

'State control, security, surveillance structures'

The official was asked to look at a draft of the "Rwanda Country Policy and Information Note," an official and public document detailing information about Rwanda and its human rights record.

According to the BBC, this document was in the process of being updated while the Rwanda policy was being worked out. Two weeks after the plan was eventually announced, in mid-April, this official reportedly sent an email to colleagues, questioning the tone of the report and whether it accurately reflected the situation in the country.

"There are state control, security, surveillance structures from the national level down….political opposition is not tolerated and arbitrary detention, torture and even killings are accepted methods of enforcing control too," the email reportedly stated.

'Critical material'

The barrister handling the media organizations' case, Jude Bunting QC, said he thought that the evidence from this official could be "the most critical material [available] about the Rwanda affair."

"The public needs to understand the material that was available to the [government] at the time the decisions under challenge were taken, the evidence that is said to weight against, as well as to justify, this flagship policy, and the reasons why the [government] decided to proceed," Bunting added.

A decision about whether any or all of the material should indeed be kept secret, as the government has requested, is expected in the coming days.

The High Court has already heard that Rwanda was originally excluded from a list of potential countries to accept asylum seekers from Britain on "human rights grounds." According to the BBC, the foreign secretary at the time, Dominic Raab, was warned that if the UK were to enter into a deal with Rwanda it could constrain what the UK was able to say to Rwanda about its human rights record.

From file: Human rights organizations, including UNHCR, have repeatedly criticized the UK's Rwanda policy. Here they demonstrate outside a UK airport detention center, some of those inside were due to be on first flight on June 14, before it was grounded | Photo: Toby Melville / Reuters
From file: Human rights organizations, including UNHCR, have repeatedly criticized the UK's Rwanda policy. Here they demonstrate outside a UK airport detention center, some of those inside were due to be on first flight on June 14, before it was grounded | Photo: Toby Melville / Reuters

Prior warnings

The Guardian added that the memo to Raab about Rwanda was dated May 20, 2021. It also said that in February 2021, the UK’s High Commissioner to Rwanda had also advised the government against using Rwanda as a place to send asylum seekers, because "the country had been accused of recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighboring nations."

The government says, however, that had the official’s comments been revealed, there was a "potential of very significant harm" to both international relations and national security issues, the BBC reports.

The Guardian claims that after the UK conducted its assessment of Rwanda’s human rights record, prior to announcing its policy, officials from the Home Office showed it to officials in Rwanda so that they could "comment on the final draft… and suggest amendments."

The UK government has already paid the Rwandan government a reported €142 million for the initial scheme with further payments promised as asylum seekers begin to arrive.

According to Reuters, the UK government is in ongoing talks with Rwandan officials to set up three or four additional hostels in the capital Kigali to house asylum seekers flown from Britain. Currently, Rwanda only has capacity to house about 100 asylum seekers. The UK claimed it hoped to eventually fly thousands there.

'Access denied'

Other countries, including Denmark, have also been reportedly considering whether they could also start outsourcing asylum applications to places like Rwanda. It is not yet known whether the outcome of the British legal review could influence whether or not other countries follow suit, but it is possible.

Currently, the UNHCR, which has openly criticized Britain's policy, also flies in some refugees to Rwanda from the nearby region. Recently, a Guardian reporter tried to speak to refugees in a UNHCR-run camp (Mahama) in Rwanda about the impact of non-communicable diseases on people in a refugee camp.

She says her access to these people was repeatedly denied by the camp manager and the Rwandan government.

The Rwandan government issued a statement through a private PR firm in which it denied the Guardian's assertion. "The only thing she was restricted from doing was encroaching upon the personal privacy of refugees who didn’t wish to speak to the media about their medical conditions. This shows the Rwandan government living up to our responsibilities to those seeking safety in our country."

 

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