Assessing the United Kingdom–Rwanda Refugee Pilot Scheme

As of May 22, 2022, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Home Office has confirmed that the asylum seekers that have arrived in the UK on small boats have been placed in detention centres with about 100 people ready to be sent to Rwanda. The UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on April 14, 2022, unveiled plans, in conjunction with the Rwandese government, to offer asylum seekers in the UK direct passage to Rwanda. The partnership was described by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame as a ‘migration and economic development partnership’ with the UK. While few details have been revealed, it is known that the UK will offer Rwanda financial support to provide asylum to individuals who arrive in the UK illegally. PM Johnson advocates that this scheme is designed to ensure that the illegal human trafficking systems that are responsible for moving people into Europe, specifically the UK, will be dismantled. Additionally, he announced plans to hold those who succeed in making it into the UK illegally in detention centres. Critics of the plan have pointed out that the agreement with Rwanda goes against internationally established refugee rights, and that Rwanda is not an ideal third state for these refugees due to a history of human rights violations.

Resettlement or Refoulement?

There are concerns that the pilot scheme initiated between the UK and Rwanda goes against the internationally established norms and laws that protect asylum seekers and refugees from refoulment, most of which stem from the nature of this ‘resettlement’. While the scheme at face value appears to be geared towards resettlement, it does not follow the laid-out procedure that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) outlines. Resettlement as outlined in the International Refugee Convention and its protocols is targeted towards individuals who under UNHCR’s mandate would benefit the most from relocation to a third state, where they are legally recognized as refugees and can later gain nationality, including those with legal and/or physical protection needs, survivors of torture and/or violence, medical needs, women and girls at risk, family reunification, children and adolescents at risk, and lack of foreseeable alternative durable solutions.

The scheme as outlined by PM Johnson will instead focus on young single men and will require those who arrive on small boats and meet the undisclosed criteria that the UK government has to be sent to Rwanda for five years, where the conditions of their stay and their status is unclear. This uncertainty prevails as the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, refuses to disclose any key framework documents of the project.

UK-Rwanda Deal

In 2021, the UK received 48,540 asylum applications, the highest number in the last two decades, and 63 per cent more than in 2020 as noted by the UNHCR. This spike is attributed to a sharp increase in the number of small boat arrivals and the ease of global travel restrictions. However, the majority of the asylum seekers from 2016 to the UK are Iranians, with 9,800 applications received in 2021. Among the top 5 asylum seeker nationalities are Eritrea (4,412), Albania (4,010), Iraq (3,042), and Syria (2,303) as of September 2021. These numbers lead to concerns about the plans of integration that Rwanda and the UK have, especially when taking into account that majority of nationalities seeking refuge and asylum in the UK are not Africans. Coupled with Rwanda’s history as a transit point for African asylum seekers – as seen with the recent case of the 132 Libyan vulnerable in the country awaiting relocation to a third state.

Current Refugee Status in Rwanda

Rwanda currently hosts six refugee camps, mainly occupied by refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi and has about 150,000 refugees in its camps, transit centres, and reception centres. These camps are currently facing challenges, in spite of the support of UNHCR, Rwanda’s Ministry in Charge of Emergency Management, and their partners’, there is limited access to basic needs such as access to water and electricity. The introduction of asylum seekers from the UK brings about a dilemma. If they are supported under similar conditions then this brings merit to the arguments brought out by non-governmental institutions and human rights activists on the quality of life that awaits these asylum seekers. On the other hand, should they be brought into camps that offer significantly better lives, then it will bring into question why the government of Rwanda and its associated partners have not done more to improve the state of affairs in the pre-existing six camps. This has the potential of escalating tensions between the refugees currently in the country and the government of the day.

Human Rights Concerns

Human rights concerns arise firstly due to the state of human rights in Rwanda. The government has been under fire due to the limited freedoms and rights, such as privacy, expression, and justice among others. Raising concerns that these asylum seekers may be facing the same conditions that initially motivated them to go to the UK. Secondly, UK’s plan is also concerning as it appears to borrow from Australia’s offshoring approach which the UN and human rights organizations and groups have criticized for being inhumane and arbitrary. Although the UK had also added a ‘community option’ where asylum seekers would be kept as part of the community while they are processed for the move to Rwanda, currently this option is not available.

Will it actually work?

The action plan set out by the UK and Rwandese governments will not dismantle the illegal human trafficking systems that have been trafficking people to Europe. Moving asylum seekers into a third state without their consent may expose them to challenging circumstances that could worsen their conditions. The illegal systems that have brought these people into the UK will instead become more robust and desperate as asylum seekers risk all that they can for a chance to stay where they believe a better life awaits them. Furthermore, the plan in no way directly affects human traffickers who will continue to transport people into the UK, whether they are sent to Rwanda or any other state.

Raudhat is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute

Photo: UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, left, announces the scheme with Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta, right, in Kigali, Rwanda on April 14, 2022 (Photo Credit: CNN)

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