Critics say a new deal that will force asylum seekers entering the UK via illegal routes to apply for asylum in Rwanda and settle there could send them back into the hands of smugglers.
The UK government has announced a new deal with Rwanda that will allow asylum seekers who enter the British isles through the English Channel or other illegal routes to be sent to the east African country and settle there if recognised as refugees.
The “Migration and Economic Development Partnership” signed by the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and Rwandan Minister for Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta on Thursday will see Rwanda receive £120 million ($158m) from the UK government in exchange for implementing the deal. Additional funding will also be provided to support asylum operations, accommodation and integration.
According to its proponents, the deal is meant to work as a deterrent to prevent migrants and refugees from crossing the English Channel illegally.
“This will help break the people smugglers’ business model and prevent loss of life, while ensuring protection for the genuinely vulnerable,” said Patel, who was in Rwanda’s capital Kigali on Thursday to finalise the deal.
The Times newspaper had earlier reported that the deal would only apply to male asylum seekers.
The Australia-inspired, ‘offshoring’ system is a key component of the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which was approved by the UK Parliament but failed to receive royal assent. The UK government previously tried and failed to reach similar deals with Albania and Ghana.
“What we see is a very cynical use of the number of people that die at sea as a way of justifying closing the border,” Nando Sigona, a professor of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham, told TRT World. “They are appropriating the discourse around saving lives and the risk for migrants, and turning it against people to justify sending them 4,000 miles from where they want to go,” he added.
Experts say the deal may in fact fuel people smuggling and facilitate trafficking as asylum seekers, whether failed or successful, are likely to make their way onwards out of Rwanda and embark on journeys more dangerous than the Channel crossing.
"Asylum camps will put vulnerable people at greater risk of exploitation; they will not disrupt people-smuggling operations and make people safer," said Jamie Fookes from the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group.
"The only people this policy will benefit are human traffickers in Rwanda, by placing individuals who are already vulnerable to exploitation into a country with a weaker modern slavery prevention system and into an environment where they will be at an elevated risk from human traffickers," Fookes added.
Rwanda’s record blasted
Critics also point out that when Israel struck a similar deal with Rwanda and Uganda under its “voluntary departure” policy, many of the roughly 4,000 refugees deported between 2013 and 2017 ended up leaving the two African countries via smuggling routes, heading to Europe via Libya.
“Far from enabling people to rebuild their lives, we know from where this has been done by other countries, it only results in high levels of self-harm and mental health issues and can also lead to people ending up back in the hands of people smugglers,” said Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council.
An analysis of the government’s published data on migration to the UK published by the Council late last year showed that two thirds of men, women and children arriving in small boats across the channel come from countries where they face war and persecution.
Brexit and the tightening of border controls have contributed significantly to a rise in the number of people who crossed the English Channel on small boats last year – entering by lorry, another dangerous option, has become more difficult. The number of Channel crossings rose from just 8,000 in 2020 to more than 28,000 in 2021.
45 people died or went missing last year while trying to cross the 30-kilometre stretch of sea between France and the United Kingdom, according to data collected by the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM). In November last year, 27 people died in the single largest drowning incident in the Channel in years.
“The UK leaving the Dublin regulation has made it paradoxically more difficult for the UK to control its borders,” Sigona said, referring to the EU’s common asylum mechanism that allows refugees to be sent back to their first country of entry to the bloc.
Just nine months ago, the UK government itself had blasted Rwanda’s human rights record. In an address to the UN Human Rights Council last July, ambassador Rita French said the UK “regretted” Rwanda’s failure to conduct independent investigations into allegations of deaths in custody and torture, as well as for its lack of support for trafficking victims, “including those held in government transit centres.”
Most of the migrants and refugees crossing the Channel are from the Middle East and Central Asia.
“It’s a symbolic measure, but also an extremely expensive one,” Sigona said. “It will be really quite dramatic to see someone from Iran or Afghanistan be sent to Rwanda, where they are likely to have no knowledge of the country, no social networks or connections.”