The government’s scheme to deport people seeking asylum to Rwanda is a desperate and misguided attempt to look tough on refugees. The scheme is in contravention to the United Kingdom’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention. It is also morally bankrupt. If the UK wants to be seen as a compassionate and responsible global actor, it needs to be scrapped.
The pilot scheme, including an upfront payment of £120 million to the Rwandan government, aims to deport single men who arrive by boat seeking asylum to the African country, where they will have the ability to claim asylum. Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims that this scheme is designed to stop “vile people smugglers” by breaking their business model.
However, the scheme has already been criticised by as cruel and inhumane by refugee and human rights organisations and as “unworkable” by the Labour Opposition Leader Kier Starmer.
The concern lies with Rwanda’s questionable human rights record. The current government under President Paul Kagame has a history of stifling dissenting voices through arrests and torture, including opposition politicians, journalists and human rights advocates. There have also been reports of arbitrary detention and violence against people accused of “deviant behaviours”, such as homeless people, sex workers and street vendors. Sending vulnerable people to a country that does not respect the human rights of its own citizens represents a severe dereliction of duty by the government.
The claim that harsh resettlement policies deter asylum seekers and breaks the business model of people smugglers is a false one. It has also been tried before.
Australia has a draconian, decades-long policy of refusing the asylum applications of people who attempt to reach Australia by boat. Instead, they are either put in mandatory offshore detention or forcibly towed back, both of which are illegal under international law and severely restrict the human rights of people seeking asylum.
In a statement similar to Mr Johnsons, the then Gillard government announced in 2011 that it would “smash the business model of people smugglers” by pursuing a resettlement deal with Malaysia. The deal involved a swap of asylum seekers, with Australia forcibly sending 800 people Malaysia in return for 4,000 processed refugees. The ‘Malaysia Solution’ was also pillared by human rights advocates, with refugees in Malaysia not able to enjoy the right to live and work lawfully. In the end, the deal was scuppered was a decision of the High Court of Australia, which determined that Malaysia did not satisfy the conditions as a suitable resettlement nation under the Australian Migration Act.
The Rwanda scheme has also run into legal difficulty, with the European Court of Human (ECHR) Rights issuing an injunction to stop the first flight of asylum seekers on health and human rights grounds.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s “disappointment” at the decision tells us that the government is more concerned with positioning itself as tough on borders rather than protecting the rights of people seeking asylum. As a member of the Council of Europe, safeguarding the human rights of asylum seekers is a serious obligation and one that the UK is required to uphold. The court is well within its rights to ensure those obligations are met.
Frankly, allowing vulnerable people to seek asylum in the UK is also the right thing to do. The 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees obligates signatories, including the UK, to process people seeking asylum regardless of how they enter the country. Refusing them the right to seek asylum in the UK because they have arrived by a specific means deemed ‘illegal’ by the government is in direct contravention to the Convention.
These methods make it difficult for people to seek asylum unless they meet very strict, often impossible criteria, something that is deeply immoral when dealing with people fleeing persecution and conflict.
Furthermore, Mr Johnsons claims that “uncontrolled migration” creates “unmanageable demands” on public health, benefits, education, housing and public transport is simply not the case.
A 2018 study from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory found that, while there are some upfront costs accepting asylum seekers in education, health and family benefits, these costs even out over a person’s lifetime. For this reason, taking in asylum seekers should be seen as an investment. In most instances host countries end up experiencing a benefit, including increases in the median income and gross domestic product through an asylum seekers’ ability to start new businesses or replace aging populations.
For this reason, asylum seekers who are found to be legitimate refugees should be seen through a positive lens, not a negative one that could stir up hatred and xenophobia and help to salvage falling polling numbers.
If the UK wants to be seen as a responsible global citizen, it needs to meet its obligations under international law. This starts with establishing timely refugee processing pathways for all people seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive. Vitally, these pathways need to respect the human rights of the people seeking asylum in a manner consistent with the Refugee Convention and the European Court of Human Rights.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the government either doesn’t respect the human rights of people seeking asylum or they are using thee vulnerable people as pawns in a cynical ploy of political point scoring. Either way, the scheme threatens to turn away concerned voters at home and dimmish the UK’s standing abroad. For these reasons the scheme must be scrapped.