October 6, 2022

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Explained: What is UK’s controversial new plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?

The United Kingdom has signed a deal with Rwanda to send some asylum seekers to the East African nation — a move that Prime Minister Boris Johnson said will “save countless lives” from human trafficking. The main target of the pilot scheme will be single men arriving on boats or lorries.

“Anyone entering the UK illegally … may now be relocated to Rwanda,”Johnson said on Thursday, calling the scheme “an “innovative approach, driven by our shared humanitarian impulse and made possible by Brexit freedoms”.

But the UK-Rwanda deal has not been popular among human rights and refugee organisations, who see it as an inhumane and expensive exercise. The United Nations has said that it raises “a number of human rights concerns.”

Under this new plan, people who arrive in Britain as stowaways in trucks or boats will be flown 6,400 kilometers to Rwanda, potentially for good. Once there, they will be assessed for eventual resettlement in the African nation.

On Friday, the UK government said that it may start sending asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda within weeks.

“We must first ensure . . . that those who tried to jump the queue or abuse our system will find no automatic path to settlement in our country but rather be swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin,” Johnson said.

The UK has paid the Rwandan government £120 million for housing and integrating the migrants as part of the pilot scheme, which will initially last for five years, AP reported.

The agreement seeks to ensure “that people are protected, respected, and empowered to further their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they choose,” Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta said.

At a news conference in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali on Thursday, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said that people who are relocated to the African country “will be given the support including up to five years of training, integration, accommodation, health care, so that they can resettle and thrive.” She said that Rwanda will invest in infrastructure to support the future influx of migrants.

According to Patel, the plan aims to improve the UK’s asylum system, which according to her has been struggling to deal with “a combination of real humanitarian crises and evil people smugglers profiteering by exploiting the system for their own gains.”

PM Johnson said that the scheme would break the business model of traffickers and disrupt the flow of illegal migration, while leaving “lots of capacity for the very generous safe and legal routes” into the UK.

It is essentially part of a wider strategy to bring down the number of people entering the UK by crossing the channel in small boats.

According to Biruta, the scheme is only for people seeking asylum in the UK. She added that they would “prefer not to receive people from immediate neighbors like the DRC, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania.”

How much will this scheme cost?

The Times reported that it could potentially cost between £20,000-30,000 for each migrant who is sent to Rwanda. However, the UK government has declined to disclose an exact figure. Critics of the scheme have called it a waste of public money.

In an interview with the BBC, Justice and Migration Minister Tom Pursglove said that the UK was already spending almost £5 million every day on hotels. In comparison to that, the UK’s £120 million payment to the Rwandan government for the first five years seems far more feasible.

How many refugees enter the UK via the channel?

Just last year, over 28,000 people entered the UK in boats, up from 8,500 in 2020. For years, migrants have travelled to the UK, using northern France as a launching point, by hiding in trucks and ferries. With the pandemic shutting down most routes in 2020, many opted to travel in small boats organised by traffickers. Dozens have not survived the trip, drowning in the bitter cold waters of the English Channel.

Last November, 27 people died after an inflatable boat carrying migrants bound for Britain capsized.

Now, as part of the new plan the British Royal Navy has been instructed to ensure “no boat makes it to the UK undetected,” PM Johnson said. Anyone who arrives illegally could potentially be prosecuted, “with life sentences for anyone piloting the boats,” he said.

Why has the scheme been criticised?

Several activists, refugee and human rights organisations have strongly opposed the new scheme. Highlighting the dangers of transferring refugees and asylum seekers to third countries without sufficient safeguards, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said they must “not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”

“UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum-seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards. Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations, and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention,” UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch flagged “Rwanda’s appalling human rights record”. “Rwanda has a known track record of extrajudicial killings, suspicious deaths in custody, unlawful or arbitrary detention, torture, and abusive prosecutions, particularly targeting critics and dissidents. In fact, the UK directly raised its concerns about respect for human rights with Rwanda, and grants asylum to Rwandans who have fled the country, including four just last year,” it said in a statement. “At a time when the people of the UK have opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians, the government is choosing to act with cruelty and rip up their obligations to others fleeing war and persecution.”

Meanwhile, Amnesty International UK called the plan “shockingly ill-conceived”.

Opposition leaders in the UK have also slammed the scheme, with some calling it “unworkable” and “extortionate” and an attempt to distract from PM Johnson’s latest ‘partygate’ controversy.

Do any other countries send asylum seekers overseas?

Yes, several other countries — including Australia, Israel and Denmark — have been sending asylum seekers overseas.

Australia has been making full use of offshore detention centres since 2001. According to the Border Force, over 4,000 were relocated to places like Nauru and Papua New Guinea between 2012 and 2019, the BBC reported.

Israel, too, chose to deal with a growing influx of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from places like Sudan and Eritrea by striking deals with third countries. Those rejected for asylum were given the choice of returning to their home country or accepting $3,500 and a plane ticket to one of the third countries. They faced the threat of arrest if they chose to remain in Israel.