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Resettling refugees in Rwanda: A look at UK’s controversial policy

There are two overriding concerns with this proposal, namely, whether or not the UK and other countries have the right to transfer the burden of asylum seekers to a third party, and whether Rwanda is an appropriate destination to send them.

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: August 6, 2022 6:59:00 pm
Outgoing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) with Rwanda President Paul Kagame. (AP File Photo)

On July 14, a private jet chartered by the British government to forcibly deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was grounded on a military base in Southern England. Nearly 50 people were selected for the flight but following legal interventions, only seven ended up boarding it. Just a few hours before take-off, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that sending those seven passengers to the Central African country would be a violation of their rights, sparing them from deportation.

The idea behind sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was to showcase outgoing UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s strategy to solve the problem of irregular and unsafe migration across the British Channel. But the UK-Rwanda deal has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations. The British public had a mixed reaction as well, with one recent poll suggesting that only 44 per cent of respondents agreed with the plan. The Guardian called the plan “inhumane” while the Daily Mirror called its critics “left-wing lawyers and naysayers.”

That being said, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the two candidates in the race to replace Johnson, have pledged to follow through on the deal and representatives from the Conservative Party have doubled down on their efforts to make it work.

There are, however, two overriding concerns with this proposal, namely, whether or not the UK and other countries have the right to transfer the burden of asylum seekers to a third party, and whether Rwanda is an appropriate destination to send them.

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The deal between Britain and Rwanda

The UK-Rwanda deal is a part of a larger bill called the Nationality and Borders Act, passed in April this year, that would increase border controls and facilitate easier deportations, all in the name of deterring illegal migration.

The Conservative Party justified the deal by claiming that it would reduce the number of people that tried to enter the UK using unsafe passages.

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Johnson defended the bill saying that its intended target would be single, young men, emphasising that 70 per cent of illegal asylum seekers “were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees.”

As per its agreement with Rwanda, the UK government says it intends to resettle asylum seekers who arrived in the UK “illegally” after travelling through safe third countries. It is aimed at people who arrive in the UK through what the government calls “illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods,” such as on small boats, when they could have claimed asylum in another safe country like France.

The trial, which is scheduled to last five years, would send potential refugees, whose claims have not yet been processed, to Rwanda, where they can apply to settle there, or seek asylum in a safe third country. The government has not imposed a limit on how many people would be eligible for this scheme.

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As compensation for accepting these refugees, Rwanda will receive an upfront payment of GBP 120 million, followed by further payments as the country handles more cases. Britain would also pay for transportation and processing fees, figures for which are unavailable but estimated at GBP 13,000 and GBP 12,000, respectively per individual. Home Office Minister Tom Pursglove said the cost would be “similar to the amount of money we are spending on this currently,” and that “longer term, by getting this under control, it should help us to save money.”

However, officials in the Home Office are sceptical. In a letter, the top civil servant warned the Home Secretary that there was a lack of evidence to suggest that this policy would have enough of a deterrent effect to save money. Comparisons have also been made with Australia’s offshore processing system which was estimated to cost taxpayers GBP 546 million between 2021 and 2022.

The UK government already spends GBP 1.5 billion per year on the asylum system, with more than GPB 4.7 million per day spent on hotels to accommodate homeless migrants.

Plans are currently on hold following the intervention from the European Courts of Human Rights, though Home Secretary Priti Patel said that while she was disappointed, “preparation for the next flight begins now.”

Can Rwanda accommodate these refugees?

Rwanda’s government has said it is ready to accommodate 1000 asylum seekers during the five-year trial but has the capacity for many more. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has cast doubt on these figures, saying that it has concerns the country can’t manage arrivals from the UK because it has too few lawyers and case workers to deal with them. In a review, the Home Office found that in 2020, Rwanda made only 228 decisions on asylum claims, while the UK made 19,000.

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Rwanda is already home to 150,000 refugees from other African countries, mainly Burundi and DR Congo. Some work as farm labourers and servants, while many are unemployed, relying on government benefits to make ends meet. Although the Rwandan government has claimed that those arriving through the scheme would receive full accommodation, healthcare and support for five years, financial estimates from the country suggest otherwise.

Rwanda’s Human Development Index value is 0.543, which positions it at 160 out of 189 countries. By comparison, the UK ranks 13th. Additionally, 70 per cent of Rwanda’s population is engaged in subsistence farming, meaning they eat, rather than sell, what they grow. That raises concerns over whether or not refugees would be able to find jobs in the country, and whether the government has adequate resources to take care of them.

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Rwanda is also known for its poor human rights record. It is a country from which hundreds of people flee each year, due to economic instability, persecution and poor standards of living. The UNHCR states that 2,900 Rwandan nationals claimed asylum worldwide in 2020, whereas only 420 people on average claimed asylum in Rwanda per year.

According to Human Rights Watch, “serious human rights abuses continue to occur in Rwanda, including repression of free speech, arbitrary detention, ill treatment, and torture by Rwandan authorities.” In terms of refugees in particular, according to a 2020 Freedom House report, “young Congolese and Burundian refugees are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and coerced recruitment into armed groups linked to Rwandan security forces.”

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In a conversation with indianexpress.com, Ebenezar Obadare, the head of the Council for Foreign Relations’ Africa desk, concurred with this assessment. He argued that Rwanda has an “abysmal” record when it comes to human rights, and that “people should care whether you deport people back to a country where ordinarily people want to flee from.”

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That being said, why did the UK choose Rwanda?

For Obadare, the answer lies with the country’s charismatic president Paul Kagame. Obadare says that Western rulers have always hoisted one African leader above the rest, and Kagame, having assessed that sentiment, has “packaged Rwanda as this oasis in a vast African desert, and has sufficiently fooled the West by doing so.”

As of 2021, Rwanda has received 50 per cent more aid than comparable countries in the region. The World Bank has committed USD 4 billion to the country since 1994. Kagame has also embarked on an aggressive tactic of securing foreign recognition, spending GBP 10 million a year alone in an advertising deal with football club Arsenal F.C. Kigali has also signed similar resettlement agreements with Israel and is currently holding conversations with Denmark.

According to Obadare, none of this would be a bad thing in and of itself, if it led to better development outcomes. However, that is a big if. After all, if the Rwandan government was capable of spending money efficiently, Obadare argues, people wouldn’t be leaving in the first place.

Apart from the situation in Rwanda, there are other major concerns over the effectiveness of the deal for the UK and the precedent it would set for other countries.

The debate over the policy

The first question related to the deal is whether or not it would serve its stated objectives of deterring illegal crossings. The evidence remains unconvincing. To start with, only a few hundred asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda each year, leading the Migration Observatory to estimate that the probability of a Channel crosser being sent to Rwanda would be around one per cent. This in turn “raises the question about how high the likelihood of removal to Rwanda would have to be in order to dissuade irregular entry to the UK.”

A report from the Home Affairs Committee also says that there was “no clear evidence” that this policy will deter migrant crossings. This is because, according to Obadare, it doesn’t address the “push factors” of migration, namely why people are fleeing from their home countries.

On the other hand, in July, the Irish government said that Britain’s Rwanda policy has triggered a surge in refugees arriving in Ireland, seeming to admit that the deal is an effective deterrent.

In order for that to hold true in the long run, Britain would have to ensure that smugglers stop transporting people through the Channel, many of whom are asylum seekers who are likely unaware of this policy. That is notoriously hard to do.

Smugglers often use vulnerable asylum seekers to carry out on-ground tasks and source supplies from a myriad of legal retailers. People are also reluctant to give information about smugglers, with many crediting them as their saviours. Most importantly, as long as demand remains high, smuggling will endure. Most people who cross the Channel are genuinely fleeing war or persecution and between March 2021 and 2022, three-quarters of people seeking asylum in Britain were granted it.

The second question relates to the obligation of states towards refugees. According to the UNHCR, the Rwanda deal put the UK afoul of its obligations under international law and global responsibility sharing. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch says the UK is “seeking to entirely shift its asylum responsibilities onto another country, acting against the object and purpose of the 1951 Refugee Convention” and “threatening the international refugee protection regime.”

The cornerstone of the current refugee regime is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which established individual rights for political refugees. According to an article written by Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen and Nikolas F. Tan in the Journal on Migration and Human Security, this framework was utilised extensively during the Cold War and played “a crucial role in legitimizing the politics of the West.” However, they note that after the 1980s, states started to implement policies that would deter the inflow of refugees including setting time limits for submitting asylum applications, using various accelerated procedures and physically preventing refugees from accessing territory.

These measures, which would include Britain’s deal with Rwanda, have in turn “produced a distorted refugee regime both in Europe and globally — a regime fundamentally based on the principle of deterrence rather than human rights protection.”

However, for Obadare, the argument is slightly more complex. He states that while the morality of accepting refugees is “unquestionable”, states do have a legitimate right to determine who they want to accept. And in terms of the deterrence measures being contradictory to international law, he says the question is redundant because states are already implementing those measures and have faced no legal proceedings for doing so.

What does this mean for the rest of the world?

As of 2017, the UN reports that low and middle income countries already host 85 per cent of global refugees. While the scheme with Rwanda may seem insignificant because of the relatively low numbers involved, it may have a knock-on effect on other high income nations.

Many countries already have schemes in place for refugee resettlement or offshore processing. Between 2013 and 2018, Israel reportedly had a secret deal with Rwanda and Uganda under which asylum seekers were given the choice of returning home, boarding a flight to the two African countries, or being arrested in Israel. Reports indicate that by 2018, 30 per cent of migrants Israel said had entered the country illegally, had left.

The EU, too, signed a deal with Turkey in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis. It stipulated that Ankara would take all measures possible to stop people travelling irregularly from Turkey to Greece and that anyone who arrived in Greece through illegal means from Turkey, could be returned back there. In exchange, the EU paid Turkey 6 billion Euros to improve humanitarian conditions for refugees.

The EU-Turkey deal was widely criticised by human rights groups but seems to have had promising results for the bloc. In 2015, more than 861,000 asylum seekers arrived in Greece. One year after the deal was signed, that number fell to 36,000.

Additionally, the US has signed deals with Mexico and Guatemala in which refugees passing through those countries en route to the US would have to seek asylum there first.

Australia also famously employs offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where migrants are forced to remain until their claims are processed.

Despite these buffer measures that are already in place, few states have gone as far as to forcibly deport asylum seekers to other countries. In that sense, the Britain-Rwanda deal remains an outlier.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, if the deal is successful in acting as a deterrent, other rich countries are “likely to start cutting deals to offload their asylum seekers onto poorer countries, no matter how autocratic.”

Denmark, for example, has famously pursued a goal of zero refugees.

Last year, the Danish Immigration Minister, Mattias Tesfaye, visited Rwanda and signed a memorandum of understanding to open a refugee processing centre there. No concrete agreement regarding the transfer of refugees was signed but many fear that may change in the wake of the Britain deal. Tesfaye himself seemed to hint at this possibility when he said “I share the view of the Rwandan and British governments that the current asylum system is unsustainable.”

The jury’s still out on whether the Britain-Rwanda deal will prove cost-effective, humane and successful in deterring illegal migration. However, as Obadare points out, perhaps those questions are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. What should instead be our priority is asking why so many people are forced to flee their homes to begin with.

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First published on: 06-08-2022 at 02:22:49 pm

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