Maverick Citizen

ASYLUM CONTROVERSY OP-ED

The UK’s refugee deal with Rwanda: ‘Setting a catastrophic precedent’

The UK’s refugee deal with Rwanda: ‘Setting a catastrophic precedent’
British prime minister Boris Johnson with his home secretary Priti Patel. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Simon Dawson)

What Prime Minister Johnson is so determined to achieve is something that certain European politicians have long dreamt of — to remove asylum seekers from the country even before their applications have been processed and rejected. 

Thanks to the European Court of Human Rights, the first British deportation flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda was grounded at the last minute. The court stepped in at the eleventh hour, so to speak, ordering that the asylum seekers in question could not be flown out of the country. There was, the Court found, a “real risk of irreversible harm” for the individuals in question. 

The persons concerned and activists had fought a legal battle against plans to deport the asylum seekers to Rwanda, some 6,500 kilometres away. But the day before the first deportation flight was scheduled to take place, a British Court of Appeal rejected an emergency application to stop it and all hope was lost.

Even after the order came down from Strasbourg, the British government is determined to put its plan into action. The word in London is that preparations for the next flight are already underway. As far as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is concerned, this is simply a bumpy start to a hugely controversial mission: the PM hopes to ship “tens of thousands” of “illegal” entrants off to Rwanda.

In doing so, the asylum application process will be outsourced to the African continent and the UK will break its commitment to the protection of refugees as set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Deport first, ask questions later

What Prime Minister Johnson is so determined to achieve is something that certain European politicians have long dreamt of: to remove asylum seekers from the country even before their applications have been processed and rejected. So-called third countries will take over the procedure and be responsible for accommodation and provisions.

In the case of Rwanda, the British government is quite prepared to throw money at the problem. Foreign Secretary Priti Patel and Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Vincent Biruta, did not sign the deal until they met in Kigali in April. The “payment” for taking the refugees will be made in the form of development aid. 

Rwanda’s government, with enormous deficits in its state budget because of the coronavirus pandemic, is to receive around €144-million from London. The so-called Economic Transformation and Integration Fund will be used chiefly for secondary education, university and vocational training and to support young entrepreneurs’ start-ups in Rwanda’s up-and-coming tech scene.

Legal breaches against refugees

In the UK as elsewhere, there is a rhetoric of legal breaches and inhuman cruelty in the context of preventing smuggling services and creating deterrents and is therefore intended to suggest to the citizens that the intention is to enforce order.

Foreign Secretary Patel eloquently announced plans to repair the migration and asylum system, left “broken” by Brexit. The current situation, seen by the British as a “crisis of little boats”, certainly lent her ambitions wings: in 2021, more than 28,000 migrants and refugees reached the English coast, most of them in small dinghies.

But the United Kingdom is not the only country with a preference for drastic measures over more humane hosting measures and hence breaking the law. The Australian government has been following a policy of deterrence for years, intercepting refugees travelling by boat before they reach the mainland and interning them in camps on remote islands. 

With their illegal pushbacks on the European external borders, Greece, Croatia and Poland have also broken — and still are breaking — their promises under the Refugee Convention — a treaty on the protection of refugees that grew out of refugees’ experiences in the Second World War.

Will other European countries follow the British lead?

However, the outsourcing of the asylum procedure now has a precedent, which may be a death knell for the already watered-down convention and thus refugee protection in Europe. 

Denmark’s government, for instance, has long been seeking its own deal with Rwanda. The brainwave of the Danish integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye seems to have so impressed the government of Boris Johnson that London has beaten Copenhagen to it with the now active asylum deal. But the Danes are also “making good progress”, Tesfaye informed representatives of all Danish parliamentary parties in May. The dialogue with Rwanda would, however, have to remain confidential, EU Refugee Commissioner Ylva Johansson having warned Copenhagen of “possible consequences for the Dublin cooperation” should the country actually go ahead with such a “counter-productive” and “selfish” plan. When, after the Council of Foreign Ministers in early June, Austria’s Foreign Minister indicated that the externalisation of asylum procedures was a possible option for his government, as long as other European states followed suit, it was met with no real criticism.

The situation for refugees in Rwanda is impossible to predict

Rwanda’s authoritarian government, on the other hand, has its own agenda and is increasingly presenting itself as a reception country, even though the way it deals with the different groups of refugees and migrants is largely opaque. 

The country is already home to around 130,000 refugees, mainly from the neighbouring countries Burundi and Congo. 90% of them live in enormous, depressing camps, as is often the case in many countries of the African continent. 

Between 2014 and 2017, it is believed that several thousand Eritreans and Sudanese refugees were brought from Israel to Rwanda. Hardly any of them are reportedly still in the country today. 

Rwanda has also taken in migrants and refugees evacuated from Libyan camps by UNHCR under the so-called “emergency transit mechanism” since 2019. These people live in the Gashora reception camp, some 60 km out of Kigali, where they await a promise from third countries to be resettled there.

Rwanda portrays itself as a reliable partner

For the people now being flown out and all those who will follow, it is still largely unclear what will happen with their asylum applications and what life is likely to hold for them in the long term. All they know is that even in the event of a successful asylum procedure, they will not be able to return to the UK. “Rwanda welcomes this partnership with the United Kingdom to receive asylum seekers and migrants and offer them legal channels to remain”, declared Foreign Minister Biruta.

For the Rwandan President Kagame, the gain in prestige is as important as the financial gain: he can depict himself as a central figure in the global migration process and will enjoy immunity in the future, particularly to British and, subsequently, perhaps also Danish criticism of his poor human rights record. Because, of course, refugees are not sent to autocratic countries with serious human rights breaches.

Certainly, Boris Johnson has already described Rwanda as one of the “safest countries” in the world. DM/MC

This article was updated on 23 /06/2022 to reflect current events. It was first published in German on boell.de.

Kirsten Krampe, Head of the Africa Division, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin. Kirsten Krampe, M.A. in Islamic studies, political science and media studies, has headed the Africa Division of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 2007 and is the coordinator for migration issues in the Foundation’s international department. She worked as an Associate Expert for the UN in Gaza from 1995 to 1998, and subsequently directed the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s offices in Ramallah and Beirut.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Neil Parker says:

    Only a clown like Boris Johnson could come up with such a ridiculous scheme. The obnoxious immorality becomes apparent if we ask the Prime Minister whether he would send any Ukrainian refugee to Rwanda. If not , then why anyone else ?

    Talking of Ukraine, the PM is again behaving like a schoolboy clown mocking Mr Putin at a recent meeting in Germany. Whatever we might thing about Mr Putin , he is the President of the Russian Federation and should be respected accordingly. At a time of crisis, with the sceptre of nuclear war looming large, every last protocol must be observed and every proper diplomatic channel followed.

    Would we find serious European leaders such as Finland’s Sauli Niinistö or Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer mocking Putin ? These are men of consequence who have made Europe’s position vey clear without resort to personal insults or mockery. Mr Johnson – on the other hand – has no understanding whatsoever of diplomacy and is quite simply a disgrace to the British nation. He needs to get his marching orders soonest

  • Joseph Donnelly says:

    Having been to Rwanda in 2004 working on a contract to rebuild one of the hotels destroyed during the genocide. I have some serious doubts about this scheme to shift immigrants to this country, not least due to the fact there are still people who live there with memories of this genocide and the possibility of further unrest taking place there in the future. On top of that you will be sending people of different religions and political leanings into stir up this pot. Another question why are Ukrainian refugees being excluded from this grand scheme?

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