Outsourcing Responsibility: Why the UK’s Controversial Rwanda Scheme Undermines International Law
Under the Nationality and Borders Act introduced in April 2022, the British government plans to transfer asylum seekers who arrived to the UK by “irregular routes” to “a safe third country,” with the first deportations under the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership Agreement originally set for June 14. The flight was grounded late Tuesday night by a last-minute ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, following earlier rulings in the UK courts that would have allowed the deportations to commence. Legal challenges by charities and representatives of over 100 asylum seekers, backed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, began the process of resisting the controversial policy, which has been called a “publicity stunt” by critics. The High Court is expected to hear an application for judicial review in July to determine the lawfulness of the partnership agreement.
As many as 130 asylum seekers have been notified they could be sent to Rwanda under the agreement, and while the UK has not publicized the demographic data of those slated for deportation, at least 15 Syrians are reported to be on this list. Initially, thirty seven individuals were told via English-only deportation notices that they would be deported on Tuesday’s flight, a decision ineligible for appeal. UK authorities claim that the migrants selected for deportation are all single men. The charity Care4Calais reports that, of the more than one hundred detained asylum seekers with whom they are working who received notices, 55 are married and 17 have small children. There are reports that the Home Office is classifying age-disputed-minors as adults using inaccurate methods.
These policies undermine both international and UK law and unjustly restrict refugees’ rights to fair asylum procedures. The UK should rescind the policies and continue to process all asylum requests within the UK.
Danger in Rwanda
The UK Home Office stated that “Rwanda will process claims in accordance with the UN Refugee Convention, national and international human rights laws, and will ensure their protection from inhuman and degrading treatment or being returned to the place they originally fled.” However, past experience and present human rights records warn otherwise.
In 2014, Israel transferred thousands of refugees to Rwanda and Uganda as part of a secret resettlement deal. While this scheme was supposedly “voluntary,” in reality, consent of the refugees was coerced. Those who arrived in Rwanda faced rights abuses, lack of livelihood, and pressure from the Rwandan government to leave the country. Rwandan authorities regularly seized asylees’ identity documents, and refugees were denied the opportunity to apply for asylum. It was quickly apparent that most refugees were subsequently smuggled out of Kigali and into neighboring countries, eventually making the treacherous journey back to Europe.
The deal ultimately unraveled in the face of public scrutiny. Yet, Rwanda remains ill-equipped to welcome refugees and ensure adequate protection measures. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of human rights violations against refugees in Rwanda, contradicting a UK report that whitewashed Rwanda’s human rights record in order to justify the partnership. Refugees currently residing in Rwanda have reported living in a “‘traumatizing’ poverty-stricken limbo” and are “constantly in fear of the country’s brutal security forces.” Many struggle to find jobs amidst a 16.5% unemployment rate. UNHCR has expressed concerns that the partnership risks overwhelming the Rwandan national asylum system, “undermining its ability to provide protection for all those who seek asylum.”
Under the scheme, while asylum seekers’ applications to reside in Rwanda are considered by the Rwandan government, they will be given accommodation — the nature of which is left unspecified, whether in camps, transit centers, or adapted hostels around Kigali — and other unclear forms of support. If their applications are successful, they will be provided with education and support for up to five years; if they are unsuccessful, they may face deportation. In its current form, the agreement “leaves significant uncertainty” as to the provision and protection of rights anticipated for refugees who receive asylum in Rwanda.
Legal Concerns Surrounding the Rwanda Scheme
While the UK Home Office claims that “there is nothing in the UN Refugee Convention which prevents removal to a safe country,” UNHCR’s commissioner, Fillipo Grandi, has staunchly opposed this plan, finding that the current scheme does not meet the standards of “legality and appropriateness.”
While the UK was a member of the EU, the Dublin Regulation created pathways for the removal of asylum seekers to third countries within the EU if an asylum seeker previously entered one of those states. After Brexit, the UK is no longer a party to the Regulation, and the UK has sought alternative means for externalizing its asylum processing. This is part of an alarming trend in which European countries offshore their responsibility to protect refugees under international and European law. Externalization practices that discriminate based on the mode of arrival disregard international standards that grant refugee status on the basis of threat of persecution and serious harm.
The UK is still pursuant to a number of other international human rights instruments, including the ECtHR, which render the scheme incompatible with UK obligations under both international and domestic law. For example, Article 31(1) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugeesexempts refugees from penalization for irregular entry. In reality, it is the lack of safe and legal access to migration pathways and protection, as perpetuated by the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership, which push refugees into irregular and perilous routes to asylum, increasing demand for smugglers and human traffickers.
Further, the UK endorsed the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migrationin 2018. While non-binding, the UK’s actions violate the principles of the Compacts by externalizing the principles of responsibility-sharing for refugees and by increasing the propensity for harm in the asylum seeking process.
While the ECtHR decision pauses the impending deportations, the United Kingdom’s actions set a dangerous precedent especially as other European countries, such as Denmark, are in talks with Rwanda to strike similar deals. The UK must halt deportations under the partnership agreement and honor its international and domestic obligations to asylum seekers. The UK should uphold its obligation as a participant in the ECtHR to respect the Court’s decision, as well as its obligations to international human rights norms and mechanisms. The UK must provide safe and legal pathways to asylum seekers rather than externalizing their migration policies, outsourcing their responsibility under international law, and putting asylum seekers’ wellbeing at jeopardy.
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