UN opposes UK plan to move asylum seekers to Rwanda

Refugee agency says Britain is treating migrants ‘like commodities’

Migrants land in Kent on a lifeboat after being rescued in the English Channel in March. PA
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The UN has accused the UK of treating migrants like “commodities” in response to its plan to deport to Rwanda tens of thousands of asylum seekers who arrive in small boats or hidden in lorries.

Its refugee agency said it was “firmly opposed” to the widely criticised plans unveiled by the two governments. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said when he announced the plan that he expected legal challenges to follow.

Mr Johnson insisted his scheme to detain and fly migrants more than 9,600 kilometres to East Africa at the expense of the taxpayer was not “draconian and lacking in compassion”.

But he and his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said on Thursday they were prepared to fight legal attempts to block the plans, which have been heavily criticised by refugee charities.

The UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, said the plan was “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention”.

“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy,” she said. “They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing”.

Ms Patel has struck a £120 million ($157m) economic deal with Rwanda and cash for each removal is expected to follow.

The Times reported that each migrant sent to East Africa would cost the government £20,000 ($26,000) to £30,000 ($39,000) and that the government wants to start the programme in six weeks.

But the plan has faced a barrage of criticism. One former Cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell, said it would be cheaper to put those arriving in Britain up at The Ritz hotel in London’s Mayfair for a year.

Labour accused Mr Johnson of trying to distract the public from the “partygate” scandal, for which he was fined after attending a birthday party at Downing Street during coronavirus restrictions, with the “unworkable, unethical and extortionate” migration plan.

Charities condemned the plans as “cruel and nasty”. They said it would fail to address illegal migration and would cause more “suffering and chaos”. Some also criticised Rwanda’s human rights track record.

Protesters carrying signs stating “Refugees welcome here” gathered outside the Home Office and declared they would “fight back” against the move.

Battling to remain in power after being fined by police for breaching coronavirus laws, Mr Johnson gave the Royal Navy the responsibility to ensure “no boat makes it to the UK undetected”.

Officials expect thousands of migrants who enter by means considered to be illegal, such as by the perilous Channel crossings, would be removed to Rwanda in the coming years.

In a major speech in Kent, Mr Johnson said the agreement was “uncapped” and Rwanda would have the “capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead”.

He said the partnership would be “fully compliant with our international legal obligations”, while insisting Rwanda was “one of the safest countries in the world”.

“But, nevertheless, we expect this will be challenged in the courts,” Mr Johnson said, as he criticised a “formidable army of politically motivated lawyers”.

He said they had “made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government”, and caused the UK to be “seen as a soft touch for illegal migration by some of our partners”.

“So I know this system will not take effect overnight,” Mr Johnson said.

Stephanie Boyce, the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, which represents solicitors, said there were “serious questions” about whether the plan complied with international law.

“It is particularly disappointing – this week of all weeks – the government is repeating misleading suggestions that legal challenges are politically motivated,” Ms Boyce said.

“If the government wishes to avoid losing court cases, it should act within the law of the land.”

During a visit to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Ms Patel said she was confident that she could fend off legal challenges after coming under pressure to tackle Channel crossings.

“People actually said this will never happen and look at the work that has taken place to achieve this,” she said.

Ms Patel said the “vast majority” of those who arrive in the UK “illegally” would be detained and considered for relocation to Rwanda.

The number of people who could be deported would be “unlimited”, with the first due to receive formal notifications within weeks, and the first flights out expected in the coming months.

Mr Johnson accepted that the Rwanda deal was not a “magic bullet” that would solve the crossings alone.

But he said he hoped it would break the business model of the “vile people smugglers” who risk turning the Channel into a “watery graveyard”.

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”.

“We are not convinced this drastic measure will deter desperate people from attempting to cross the Channel, either,” Ms Abrams said.

“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.”

Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon urged the government to “immediately rethink” the “cruel and nasty” plans, and said they could cost up to £1.4 billion a year.

“Treating people like human cargo by using the force of military to repel vulnerable people who have already endured extreme human suffering, and expelling them to centres in Rwanda, a country with a questionable record on human rights, is dangerous, cruel and inhumane,” Mr Solomon said.

The policies would “do little to deter desperate people from seeking protection or stop the smugglers, but only lead to more human suffering, chaos and at huge expense to the UK”, he said.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said the “shockingly ill-conceived idea would go far further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money”.

Sonya Sceats, chief executive of the Freedom from Torture charity, said the plan 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”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the plans “unworkable”, “extortionate” and an attempt to distract from Mr Johnson being fined for breaching his own coronavirus laws.

Ms Patel insisted the agreement with Rwanda did not hinge on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is facing opposition in the House of Lords.

She said the Home Office was prepared for legal challenges, as she accused lawyers of “fleecing the British taxpayer”.

“A lot of this is legal aid money that goes into the merry-go-round of claim after claim after claim,” Ms Patel said.

Britain's Home Secretary, Priti Patel, shakes hands with Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vincent Biruta , after signing the asylum-processing deal in Kigali, Rwanda, on April 14. AP

On Friday, Priti Patel said she believed other countries would follow Britain’s Rwanda asylum proposals.

The home secretary said Denmark could be among those to reproduce the UK government’s “blueprint”.

Ms Patel took the rare step of issuing a ministerial direction to overrule civil servants’ concerns about whether the concept would deliver value for money, Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported.

It said the Home Office had used the measure only once previously within the past 30 years.

The Home Office declined to comment on the matter when approached by the PA news agency.

The Telegraph said unions representing staff in Whitehall are discussing mass walk-outs and transfer requests over ethical and legal concerns about the policy, and that they say Ms Patel faces a “mutiny”.

Defending the plan, justice and immigration minister Tom Pursglove told broadcasters there was a “moral imperative” to crush the “cruel” business model of human traffickers.

He said the plan would save taxpayers money in the “longer-term”, although he accepted the short-term cost would be equivalent to what the UK currently pays to accommodate and process asylum seekers domestically – about £5 million ($6.5m) per day.

She told reporters the plan was likely to be emulated by others, including other European countries.

“There is no question now that the model we have put forward, I’m convinced is world class and a world first, and it will be used as a blueprint going forward. There’s no doubt about that,” Ms Patel said.

“I would not be surprised if other countries start coming to us direct on the back of this as well.”

The home secretary said Copenhagen was in talks with Rwanda as well, and that the Council of Europe “have also basically said they are interested in working with us”.

How it will work

Ms Patel was asked about further details of the “migration and economic development partnership” during a visit to Rwanda, but declined to “get into details on numbers” of those who would be sent there.

The Home Office said the taxpayer would pay for each person relocated but would not say how much that could be.

As well as chartered flights for removal, the government will pay for caseworkers, legal advice, translators, accommodation, food and healthcare for every person relocated.

For those who are granted asylum in Rwanda, it will fund an integration package to help them put down roots.

Migrants who arrive on small boats or refrigerated lorries would be screened on arrival in the UK.

Those who do not receive refugee status would be considered for removal to Rwanda and some might be detained.

Only children would be excluded, which effectively means that newly arrived families would not be split up and could stay 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 plan will be backdated, possibly to 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 Africa 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.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson views a Coastguard drone used for surveillance at Lydd Airport in Dover, England. AFP

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.

Mr Biruta also raised questions about migrants with criminal records.

Mr Johnson said the project had been nine months in the planning and pledged £50m in new funding for boats, aerial surveillance and military personnel to help ensure the measures were a “very considerable deterrent” to crossings.

He said people who made it to the UK “will be taken not to hotels at vast public expense”, but housed in Greek-style detention centres, with the first opening at a former RAF barracks in North Yorkshire “shortly”.

Up to 300 military personnel would be dedicated to police migrants in the English Channel on busy days, it is understood.

They will work on ships and aircraft and will include Army personnel, freeing up Border Force staff for processing.

Mr Johnson repeatedly avoided questions about breaking the coronavirus rules with regard to the “partygate” scandal, 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 said the nation had voted to control immigration in the Brexit referendum, and 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 said attempts at “repeated and generous offers” to France to accept the return of migrants had failed.

Other suggestions, including Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar, were rejected, at times angrily, by those places.

Ministers have been under pressure to accept more refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the visa system criticised as too bureaucratic.

Updated: April 16, 2022, 5:38 PM