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

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.