UK to send asylum seekers to Rwanda under controversial new deal

Critics slam plan as unethical and unworkable but PM Johnson says it will ‘save lives’ and disrupt people-smuggling.

A member of Britain's border force is seen escorting migrants and refugees
More than 28,000 migrants and refugees crossed from mainland Europe to the UK via the English Channel in 2021, a more than three-fold increase on the figure for the year before [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

The United Kingdom plans to send some asylum seekers who make it the country thousands of miles away to Rwanda for their claims to be processed there under a controversial new immigration scheme announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“From today … anyone entering the UK illegally as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 may now be relocated to Rwanda,” Johnson said in a speech on Thursday morning near Dover, in southeastern England, where thousands of refugees and migrants landed on beaches after crossing the English Channel in small boats last year.

Precise details of the plan are yet to be confirmed, including whether it will be focused on single men, as previously reported, but Johnson noted the deal between London and Kigali was “uncapped” and could potentially see Rwanda “resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead.”

He claimed the 120-million-pound ($156m) scheme will “save countless lives” from human trafficking and disrupt the business model of people-smuggling gangs.

Home Secretary Priti Patel, who travelled to Rwanda’s capital on Thursday to pen the deal, meanwhile described it as a “global first” and said it will “change the way we collectively tackle illegal migration”.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta said Kigali welcomed the partnership with London, adding it would offer “asylum seekers and migrants … legal pathways to residence” in the country.

But critics, including opposition politicians and refugee organisations, have warned the plan is unethical, unworkable and overly expensive. They have also raised concerns over Rwanda’s human rights record.

Opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer slammed the move, calling it “a desperate announcement by a prime minister who just wants to distract from his own law breaking” – a nod to the renewed pressure Johnson is facing after being fined by police for breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules in June 2020.

“They reflect a prime minister who has got no grip, no answers to the questions that need answering and no shame, and I think Britain deserves better than this,” Starmer said.

English Channel crossings reach record high in 2021

More than 28,000 migrants and refugees crossed from mainland Europe to the UK via the English Channel in 2021, a more than threefold increase on the figure for the year before.

Many made the perilous crossing of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in small dinghies unsafe for the journey.

In November, 27 people died while attempting to reach the UK when their boat deflated and sank, marking the worst disaster on record involving migrants and refugees trying to cross the channel from France.

Crossings have continued at a pace this year, with about 600 made on Wednesday, and Johnson warned the figure could reach 1,000 a day within weeks as attempts increase in line with the more favourable conditions brought about by the onset of the northern hemisphere’s summer.

But opponents of the government’s plans said they were unlikely to address the issue.

The UK branch of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) warned agreements of the sort struck with Rwanda were often “eye-wateringly expensive, often violate international law, lead to the use of widespread detention [and] lead to more smuggling, not less.”

“With this deal the UK is looking to shift its responsibilities towards refugees, not share them,” it said.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the UK-based charity Refugee Council, also slammed the move, calling it a “cruel and nasty decision” and predicting it would not stop people-smuggling gangs.

“Sending people seeking asylum to be processed abroad will do absolutely nothing to address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK,” Solomon said in a statement.

“Instead, the Government should focus on operating an orderly, humane and fair asylum system, and developing safe routes such as humanitarian visas, rather than harming lives and destroying our reputation as a country which values human rights,” he added.

Johnson expects court challenges

Defending the plan on Thursday, Johnson said he was confident it was “fully compliant” with the UK’s international legal obligations but expected it to be “challenged in the courts”.

“I know that this system will not take effect overnight,” he said.
Taking back control of the UK’s borders was a major rallying cry of the Leave campaign in the UK’s divisive 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union and Johnson’s pro-Brexit government is under pressure from some quarters for a perceived failure to adequately tackle the English Channel crossings.

Recent opinion polling conducted by Ipsos Mori suggests nearly two-thirds of Britons are unhappy with the government’s handling of immigration.

Of the 3,206 people surveyed by the company on the issue in the first two months of this year, 59 percent said they were “dissatisfied”.

More than half cited “not doing enough to stop Channel crossings” as a reason for their displeasure.

Source: Al Jazeera