UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on 14 April that “from today, anyone entering the UK illegally as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 may now be relocated to Rwanda. Rwanda will have the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead.” The UK claims that the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda will not only deter people from embarking on dangerous sea journeys but will also help break the “business model of people smuggling gangs.” Additional measures include putting the country’s navy in charge of operations in the Channel from 15 April 2022 onwards and setting up a new reception centre to hold people attempting to enter the UK to avoid having to house asylum seekers in hotels. The reception centre is to be built on a former RAF base at Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire. However, unlike existing detention centres, people held there will be free to come and go.
The highly controversial deal–which has been harshly criticised by church leaders, opposition politicians, and national and international refugee rights advocates–was sealed by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel during a trip to Rwanda on 14 April, when she and the Rwandan minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, Vincent Biruta, signed an “economic development partnership” between the two countries. The deal will be funded by the UK at a cost of some £120 million. Unsuccessful asylum seekers would be integrated into communities in Rwanda and can opt to remain in the country or return to their home countries. According to the UK Secretary of State for Wales, the scheme is mostly focused on single young men coming to the UK in search of economic opportunities. It is nonetheless unclear whether only men will be sent to Rwanda, whether they will have a right of appeal, whether cases will initially be processed in the UK, and whether only those deemed “economic migrants” will be removed. According to the Guardian, it is expected that people removed will initially be taken to a hostel in Kigali for processing.
Home Office minister, Tom Pursglove, insisted that the scheme would save money in the “longer term,” despite a reported cost of up to £30,000 per person and that the UK is “spending £5 million per day accommodating individuals who are crossing in hotels. That is not sustainable and is not acceptable and we have to get that under control.” Yet, the Guardian reported that government insiders said that they expect many legal battles which could leave the scheme costing much more, with some predicting it could take two years before anyone is flown to Rwanda.
While the Prime Minister insisted that Rwanda was one of the safest countries in the world, the UK criticised the country last year for its human rights record. The NGO Detention Action, criticised the scheme and said that people sent there could face “indefinite detention under a government notorious for violent persecution of dissent.” The organisation also highlighted that “the UK currently gives asylum to Rwandan refugees fleeing political persecution.” Human Rights Watch recalled that in 2018, Rwandan security forces shot dead at least 12 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo when they protested a cut to food rations. Authorities subsequently arrested and prosecuted more than 60 refugees on charges including rebellion and spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.
Moreover, the UNHCR expressed concern over the scheme. A spokesperson for the organisation said that the “UNHCR does not support the externalisation of asylum states’ obligations. This includes measures taken by states to transfer asylum seekers and refugees to other countries, with insufficient safeguards to protect their rights, or where this leads to the shifting rather than the sharing of responsibilities to protect refugees.” The Refugee Council also denounced the government’s plans and said that the government was choosing “control and punishment above compassion despite the fact its own data shows that two thirds of men, women and children arriving in small boats come from countries where war and persecution has forced them from their homes.”
The deal also comes as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on UK detention and deportation efforts, which could also complicate efforts to implement the Rwanda scheme. In one case from late 2021, several people were taken off a deportation flight to Jamaica due to a large number of COVID-19 cases at the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. One detainee at the centre told Metro that his roommate had tested positive for COVID-19 and that he had not been tested nor changed rooms. The Jamaican government raised concerns about whether the people due to fly were COVID-free and had had PCR tests before being taken to the plane. Several people deported to Jamaica in December 2020 were found to have COVID-19.
In terms of COVID-19 vaccinations within the country, a study published by the Lanlungan Filipino Consortium found that undocumented migrants were afraid of trying to obtain the vaccine because of their immigration status. The UK government said that diagnosis and treatment for COVID-19 is free and available to all regardless of immigration status. However, treatment for secondary or subsequent illnesses, including complications arising from COVID-19, are not included.
Home Office data shows that in 2021, the number of people deported from the UK was at a record low, while asylum applications soared. 28,526 people arrived on small boats last year, up from 8,404 in 2020. From September 2020 to September 2021, 2,380 people were forcibly returned to another country, representing a yearly drop of 35 percent and the lowest number on record. On the other hand, there were 48,540 asylum applications in the UK in 2021, 63 percent more than in 2020. Also, at the end of December 2021, there were 1,179 persons in immigration detention (including those detained under immigration legislation in prison), 69 percent more than at the end of June 2020 (698), but 28 percent fewer than pre-pandemic levels at the end of December 2019 (1,637). Home Office figures show that 76 percent of those who left detention in 2021, were detained for seven days or less.
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- UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Vincent Biruta sign an agreement in Kigali on 14 April 2022 (Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP, “UK Plan to Ship Asylum Seekers to Rwanda is Cruelty Itself,” Human Rights Watch, 14 April 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/14/uk-plan-ship-asylum-seekers-rwanda-cruelty-itself)