Rwanda or Bust: UNHCR says UK asylum plan is against international law

April 30, 2022

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

The UN’s Refugee Agency (the UNHCR) has condemned the UK Government’s plans to relocate some asylum seekers to Rwanda, claiming they are in breach of international law.

What does this mean?

On Thursday 14 April, the UK Government announced the asylum deal with Rwanda, in return for an initial £120m as part of an “economic transformation and integration fund”. The UK will cover all operational costs of the relocation scheme. Initially, the pilot scheme will focus on single men arriving on boats or lorries. However, this is expected to be extended to any adult who comes into the UK without authorisation.

The UNHCR has objected to the scheme, saying the UK Government’s plans are “contrary to the letter and spirit of the [1951] Refugee Convention”. The core principle of the Convention is non-refoulement, meaning asylum seekers cannot be returned to a country where there would be a serious threat to their life or freedom.

Rwanda’s human rights record has drawn much criticism, and is the main reasoning behind the UNHCR’s objection. The largest violation of human rights in modern Rwandan history was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, where an estimated 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were slaughtered in 100 days by the Rwandan Government. Violations continue to this day. In 2021, Paul Rusesabagina, a vocal opponent of incumbent President Paul Kagame, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges after being duped into boarding a plane to Rwanda. The Democracy Index classes Rwanda as an authoritarian state. At its core, the legal basis for the UNHCR’s objection relies on the country’s history of gross human rights violations

What's the big picture effect?

This is not the only strategy in the Government’s new plan to tackle illegal immigration. The PM has said those who make it to the UK will not be “taken to hotels at vast public expense”, instead being housed in detention centres during processing. Combined, these plans are intended to “over time prove a very considerable deterrent”. 2021 saw a sharp increase in the number of people crossing the Channel, with 28,526 people crossing in small boats, up from 8,404 in 2020. 

Despite global outrage, relocation of asylum seekers to Rwanda is no novel idea. Around 4,000 people were deported by Israel to Rwanda and Uganda under a “voluntary departure” scheme between 2014 and 2017. Rwanda officially denies its involvement. Almost all the asylum seekers deported are thought to have left Rwanda immediately, casting doubt upon the effectiveness of the UK Government’s plans. Regardless, the precedent set by Israel’s scheme could prove to be an important factor in determining whether the UK asylum plan violates international law

The UNHCR is not the sole critic of this initiative. Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer labelled the scheme “unworkable” and “extortionate”, claiming it was an attempt to distract from Boris Johnson’s “partygate” fine. In his Easter sermon, Archbishop of Canterbury Reverend Justin Welby decreed the policy cannot “stand the judgement of God”. This humanitarian, political, and religious censure cannot be ignored. 

Should the UK be given the legal green light to proceed with the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, it could pave the way for a more aggressive immigration policy in the West. Already, Denmark is engaging in talks with Rwanda about the transfer of asylum seekers. At a time of political turmoil and social division, immigration is a key element of every politician’s manifesto. Is this new plan designed to win votes and brush the problem under the carpet, or will it actually help asylum seekers? The mass of objections and contentious legal issues suggest the former.

Report written by Jonathan Moore

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