1. UK-Rwanda scheme

On 14 April 2022, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that the UK had signed a joint migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda. This introduced a scheme that would see some asylum seekers who have arrived illegally in the UK flown to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed there. Rwanda would consider the asylum claims in accordance with Rwanda domestic law. Those whose claims were successful could settle in Rwanda as refugees, whilst those with unsuccessful claims could be removed from Rwanda to a country in which they have a right to reside.

The aim of the scheme is to deter asylum seekers from making dangerous journeys to the UK to claim asylum. Such journeys, commonly facilitated by people smugglers, can involve travelling on small boats across the English Channel or illicitly by lorries. Ministry of Defence data suggests that 252 migrants were detected crossing the English Channel in small boats during the 24-hour period 00:00 to 23:59 on 23 May 2022.

The scheme has not yet commenced. Following the announcement, refugee charity Care4Calais is leading a legal challenge against the government. This is on several grounds, including that the scheme may breach certain human rights obligations. The home secretary is cited by the BBC as saying the scheme would “take time” to implement as a result of legal challenges.

2. International law and human rights concerns

National and international concerns have been raised about whether the UK-Rwanda scheme contravenes international law and human rights.

The UN Refugee Agency said it “firmly opposed” the UK-Rwanda scheme because it evaded international obligations and was “contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention”. The Refugee Convention is an international agreement that sets out refugee rights, as well as legal obligations on signatory countries to protect refugees.

The scheme could also violate the right to ‘non-refoulement’ in the Refugee Convention, according to authors of an EU migration law blog post on the incompatibility of the UK-Rwanda scheme with international law. ‘Non-refoulement’ is a principle of international human rights law that guarantees no-one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Migration Policy Institute also expressed concerns about how the Refugee Convention may be contravened by implementing the UK-Rwanda scheme. It argued that the scheme advanced the idea that countries could “cast off their responsibilities” signed up to under the Refugee Convention.

Concerns about Rwanda’s human rights record have also been raised. When the home secretary announced the scheme, she described Rwanda as having one of the strongest records of refugee resettlement, having resettled over 100,000 in recent years. However, Human Rights Watch highlighted that the UK government had previously raised concerns about human rights in Rwanda. This referred to a statement made in January 2021, where the UK government made recommendations to Rwanda to improve its human rights record. Recommendations included that Rwanda screen, identify and provide support to victims of trafficking.

Contrastingly, the scheme has received some support. For instance, Migration Watch UK—an independent and non-political think tank presided over by Lord Green of Deddington (Crossbench)—believed the scheme could deter criminal traffickers.

In a speech delivered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on action to tackle illegal migration, he expressed confidence that the scheme was fully compliant with international legal obligations.

3. Policies in other countries

The UK is not the first country to adopt this type of scheme.

From 2012 to 2014, asylum seekers who had arrived by boat in Australia were transferred to Nauru and Papua New Guinea for asylum claims processing. Similar to the UK-Rwanda scheme, the Australian policy was met with international concerns. A policy brief by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, said Australia’s offshore processing model had failed to deter irregular migration, save lives at sea, or inhibit the people smuggling network. No new asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia have been relocated offshore since 2014. Instead, Australian authorities now return asylum seekers to the place they departed from.

Most recently, Denmark introduced legislation in June 2021 to allow the relocation of asylum seekers to third countries, outside of the EU, whilst their asylum claims are reviewed. An article by Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights Nikolas Feith Tan and Professor at Aarhus University Jens Vedsted-Hanse said that important legal issues remained unanswered. This included whether Denmark would be able to find a willing partner-state to where it could relocate asylum seekers. On 20 April 2022, Reuters reported that Danish Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye was in talks with Rwanda about the possibility of transferring asylum seekers there.

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Cover image from Pixabay.