UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said asylum seekers will be flown to Rwanda on a one-way ticket under new plans to stop thousands of people crossing the Channel in small boats.
Mr Johnson said the numbers sent to Rwanda will not be capped and successful claimants would “build a new life in that dynamic country” rather than be allowed to return to the UK.
“Rwanda will have the capacity to rehouse tens of thousands of people in the years ahead,” he said at a launch event in Kent, south-east England.
It was not clear when — or if — the policy would start as Mr Johnson accepted that it was likely to be challenged in the UK courts.
But he said action was needed to combat people smugglers from turning the sea between England and France into a “watery graveyard”.
Charities said the “cruel and nasty decision” to send some asylum seekers more than 9,600 kilometres away would not address the problem, and instead lead “to more human suffering and chaos” at a cost of about £1.4 billion ($1.8bn).
More than 5,000 people are thought to have crossed to the UK already in small boats this year, on track to outstrip last year’s record number of more than 28,000.
The prime minister said the Navy would take over the duties of stopping migrants crossing from the UK’s Border Force.
“I would like to get it down to zero,” he told reporters, but he accepted that was “unlikely” to happen any time soon. “I’m not going to pretend it will work overnight,” he said.
How it will work
The government says the scheme does not rely on passing a contentious borders bill currently going through parliament. The Nationality and Borders bill is aimed at restricting migration and clears the way for offshore processing of migrant claims
Home Secretary Priti Patel was asked about further details of the “migration and economic development partnership” during a visit to the East African nation, but declined to “get into details on numbers” of those who would be sent to Rwanda.
Migrants who arrive via small boats or refrigerated lorries would be screened on arrival in the UK. Those who do not secure refugee status would be considered for removal to Rwanda and some may be detained.
Only children would be excluded from the scheme, which effectively means that newly-arrived families would not be split up and could remain in the UK for their asylum claims.
Ms Patel said the “vast majority” of people arriving by small boats and in the back of refrigerated lorries “will be considered to be relocated”. The scheme will be backdated to potentially cover those who have arrived since January 1.
Rwanda can reject a migrant based on the screening in Britain. A migrant can also appeal in the UK courts against being sent to Rwanda.
If unsuccessful, they would be taken to Rwanda on charter flights. Once there, they would be processed for asylum under local laws and Rwanda would be legally responsible for their health and safety.
Rwanda's Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, speaking alongside Ms Patel, said the country did not want to receive migrants who had travelled to Britain from neighbouring countries in Africa, such as Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania. He also raised questions about migrants with criminal records.
Mr Johnson said the project had been nine months in the planning. But opposition MPs accused him of using the project to deflect attention from his fine for breaching coronavirus laws at a series of Downing Street parties.
Mr Johnson repeatedly avoided questions about breaking the rules, saying he would speak to MPs next week as he sought to focus on the new Rwanda policy.
He said the number of people making the perilous crossing of the Channel could reach 1,000 a day in weeks, after about 600 arrived on Wednesday.
“I accept that these people — whether 600 or 1,000 — are in search of a better life, the opportunities that the United Kingdom provides and the hope of a fresh start,” he said.
“But it is these hopes, these dreams, that have been exploited. These vile people smugglers are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard, with men, women and children drowning in unseaworthy boats and suffocating in refrigerated lorries.”
Mr Johnson argued that the nation had voted to control immigration in the Brexit referendum, and said that “our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not”.
“So just as Brexit allowed us to take back control of legal immigration by replacing free movement with our points-based system, we are also taking back control of illegal immigration, with a long-term plan for asylum in this country,” he said.
“It is a plan that will ensure the UK has a world-leading asylum offer, providing generous protection to those directly fleeing the worst of humanity, by settling thousands of people every year through safe and legal routes.”
Mr Johnson accepted the programme followed failed attempts at “repeated and generous offers” to France to accept the return of migrants.
British Red Cross executive director Zoe Abrams said the humanitarian network was “profoundly concerned” about the plans to “send traumatised people halfway around the world to Rwanda”.
“The financial and human cost will be considerable,” Ms Abrams said. “Evidence from where offshoring has been implemented elsewhere shows it leads to profound human suffering, plus the bill that taxpayers will be asked to foot is likely to be huge.
“We are not convinced this drastic measure will deter desperate people from attempting to cross the Channel, either.
“People come here for reasons we can all understand, like wanting to be reunited with loved ones or because they speak the language. Making it harsher may do little to stop them risking their lives.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, urged the government to “immediately rethink its plans”.
“We are appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision to send those seeking sanctuary in our country to Rwanda,” Mr Solomon said.
“Every day we are hearing the stories of desperate Ukrainian families fleeing war.
“This is the brutal reality faced by refugees escaping conflicts all over the world, who this government now wants to treat as no more than human cargo to be shipped elsewhere.
“Offshoring the UK’s asylum system will do absolutely nothing to address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK.
“It will do little to deter them from coming to this country, but only lead to more human suffering and chaos — at a huge expense of an estimated £1.4bn a year.”
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said the “shockingly ill-conceived idea will go far further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money”.
Sonya Sceats, chief executive of the Freedom from Torture charity, said plans to “imprison refugees in prison camps in Rwanda is deeply disturbing and should horrify anybody with a conscience”.
“It is even more dismaying that the UK government has agreed this deal with a state known to practise torture, as we know from the many Rwandan torture survivors we have treated over the years,” Ms Sceats said.
She suggested Mr Johnson was hoping the “cynical announcement will distract from his own lawbreaking and shore up his party’s plummeting support in the upcoming local elections”.
Meanwhile, ministers have been under pressure to accept more refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the visa system criticised as too bureaucratic.