JThe UK government is due to carry out its first-ever deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda today, in a controversial new policy that campaigners say could upend the principle of asylum globally .
The chartered flight, which will carry only a small fraction of the more than 100 people originally scheduled to fly, is due to depart late Tuesday local time after last-minute legal challenges to block its departure failed.
The British government hopes the flight will be one of many to the East African country under a deal struck between Boris Johnson’s government and Rwanda in April. In return for an initial payment of £120 million ($155 million) plus running costs, Rwanda agreed to permanently resettle asylum seekers in the country.
According to Johnson, Rwanda has “the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people over the coming years” and there is no cap on the number.
Prominent figures, including Prince Charles, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi, and the entire Church of England leadership have condemned the plans. The Prince of Wales has privately described the policy as “appalling”, according to The temperature of London – a significant assessment of the heir to the British throne, who is supposed to maintain political neutrality.
A coalition of human rights charities – Care4Calais, Detention Action and the Public and Commercial Services Union – sought an injunction over the theft, but the request was dismissed by a High Court judge on Friday , who said there was “significant public interest”. by allowing Home Secretary Priti Patel, herself the daughter of Indian migrants from Uganda who arrived in the UK in the 1960s, to implement immigration control measures. A last-minute attempt to appeal the decision to a higher court was later denied on Monday, as was another injunction attempt that day brought by the charity Asylum Aid.
“While we can still expect more legal challenges and last-minute claims, we have always maintained that everything we do is consistent with our national and international obligations,” a spokesperson for the ministry said. ‘Interior at TIME.
According to Toufique Hossain, one of the lawyers representing the coalition and some of the asylum seekers, seven of the more than 100 people originally scheduled to be sent back to Rwanda will in fact be on the plane. The others won individual claims to delay their deportation.
“This policy goes to the very heart of undermining human dignity and breaches both national and international law,” Hossain says, referring to the UK Human Rights Act 1998 and the Convention 1951 United Nations Multilateral Convention on Refugees, which enshrines the rights of asylum seekers. to protection.
Read more: How Britain’s immigration bill could erode citizenship rights
Why the asylum agreement is important
What makes the deal different, and according to activists, tougher than other countries’ overseas migrant processing programs, is that people whose asylum claims have been accepted will have to start their new lives in Rwanda.
Rwanda has a murky human rights record – the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented frequent attacks on freedom of expression, abuse of LGBTQ+ people and excessive use of force against refugees . The UK government has publicly acknowledged some of these concerns. But the interior ministry spokesperson told TIME that “Rwanda is a safe country and has already been recognized for providing safe haven for refugees.”
HRW and other groups, however, have accused the UK government of downplaying and ignoring the real risks. “The government has completely misrepresented Rwanda, saying it’s a safe third country,” said Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of HRW. Rwanda has made impressive development gains since its 1994 genocide, which saw at least 800,000 people massacred. But that, says Ahmed, does not equate to an impressive human rights record.
Although last-minute attempts to block the theft have been rejected, the courts have yet to rule on the actual legality of the government policy, which the High Court judge said could take six weeks. If the policy is deemed illegal, those who have already been sent to Rwanda will be able to return to the UK to seek asylum. Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, one of the charities seeking the injunction, says even the experience of the initial deportation could significantly ‘re-traumatize’ these people, many of whom say they are victims of trafficking and the torture.
Moseley adds that many asylum seekers were extremely distressed after Monday’s hearing. She says an Iranian man, who is one of seven to fly out, could not bear the thought of being separated from his adult son in the UK, his wife and two daughters who are still in Iran.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has made a rare intervention by publicly opposing the asylum policy between the UK and Rwanda. “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred overseas for processing,” the body said in a statement.
The politics behind the deal
After winning the 2019 general election on a promise to “deliver Brexit”, Johnson came under considerable pressure from Conservative Party members to take a hardline stance on migrants. The 2016 Brexit campaign was characterized by a drive to “take back control” of Britain’s borders, given the free movement of EU nationals into the UK as well as the influx of 1.3 million asylum seekers in the bloc in 2015. (Compared to its population size, the UK took in the smallest share of asylum seekers, according to the Pew Research Center.)
“We must ensure that the only route to asylum in the UK is safe and legal,” Johnson said April 14 in a speech in Kent, southeast England, where nearly 30,000 migrants in small boats landed on beaches last year after crossing the English Channel.
Read more: Europe sees a migration crisis taking shape in Afghanistan
“Those who try to jump the queue or abuse our systems will not find an automatic route to install them in our country, but will instead be quickly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin” , Johnson said at the time. The risk of ending up in Rwanda should be a “significant deterrent” to people seeking safety in the UK, he added.
The paradox of Brexit is that it is more difficult for the UK to waive responsibility for asylum seekers who have traveled to the country via Europe. Under EU law, member states can return migrants to the first country they arrived in within the bloc. Critics of the Rwanda deal say the UK is now trying to make up for its exclusion from those laws.
Although the UK was the first European country to pursue the hard-line policy, similar tactics have been used by Australia since 2012 and Israel since 2015. Data from 2013 to 2021 shows that Australia transferred more than 3,000 asylum seekers who crossed the country by boat to offshore treatment camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. HRW has documented incidents of severe abuse, medical neglect, substandard living conditions and suicides among camp inmates. Some people have spent years in limbo, unable to return safely to their home countries or be accepted by Australia.
Critics say Australia’s outsourcing of the asylum process, which costs the government around A$1 billion ($691 million) a year, has failed to deter further sea crossings. More asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat in the first 12 months of the offshore policy than at any other time in history or since, according to government figures.
Israel reached an agreement in 2015 with an unnamed African country – apparently Rwanda or Uganda – to accept refugees who fled to the country. Asylum seekers were given the option of returning to their countries of origin, mainly in North and East Africa, by accepting a payment of approximately $3,270 and a plane ticket to the countries of East Africa.—or be sent to prison in Israel. About 30 percent of irregularly arrived migrants left Israel under the program in 2018, according to the government.
Although the UK is not the first country to test the offshore asylum system, experts believe it sets a dangerous precedent that other high-income countries could follow. Seeing a major economy pursue this approach risks “legitimizing the abdication of country responsibility through outsourcing and shifting the burden to countries in the Global South,” says Lutz Oette, co-director of the Center for Human Rights Law at SOAS, University from London.
What happens next?
A week after the UK unveiled its deal with Rwanda, Denmark announced it was in talks with the East African country to strike a similar deal. Then, on June 3, the Danish parliament passed a law allowing the relocation of asylum seekers arriving in the country to countries outside the EU while their claims are heard.
Campaigners also fear that if more countries like Denmark follow the UK’s lead, it could undermine the principle of asylum seeking globally. “It tears at the protections established after World War II and fundamentally undermines the idea of a global division of responsibility,” Ahmed says.
And despite the ethical concerns, high costs and wave of legal challenges the UK government may face over the Rwandan scheme, experts tell TIME that lawmakers seem determined to pursue the deportation of asylum seekers from the country. country, if only to sound tough on migration. “It’s absolutely clear that even if a person ends up getting on the plane, they want that plane to go,” Hossain says. ‘They want it to be a point of principle, to let people know that they are actually moving forward with this, which is terrifying for refugees seeking safety in the UK’
More Must-Try Stories from TIME