What Britain’s deal with Rwanda means for its asylum system

LONDON — The British government has announced a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a move that provoked an immediate backlash from opposition politicians, international legal experts and human rights defenders.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday the move was aimed at tackling human trafficking and “fixing our broken asylum system”, many have called the plan cruel and potentially illegal.

The announcement comes at a politically difficult time for Mr Johnson, who faces criticism for breaching coronavirus lockdown measures, and as the number of people crossing the Channel by boat to seek asylum continues to rise .

Here’s what to know about the current situation, plus what experts say is likely to come next.

Highly visible boat arrivals across the Channel have increased measurably over the past two years. According to the BBC, at least 2,354 people arrived in Britain on small boats last month, nearly three times as many as the same month in 2021.

But the total number of asylum applications is still significantly below its peak of two decades ago, with the total in 2021 representing just over half of what it was in 2002. And of all those applying asylum, nearly two-thirds were found to be genuine. refugees in 2021.

Experts have long said the boat arrivals signal a change in route as those hoping to enter Britain to seek asylum have abandoned other less visible means of entry, such as smuggling by lorry or arriving by air, especially since some international travel has been interrupted by the pandemic.

Most of those arriving by boat have valid asylum claims, completed searches, and come from war-torn countries including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Rights groups argue the issue of boat arrivals has been used to exploit discontent and rally support for the government. “There’s completely disproportionate hysteria around this,” said Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a UK charity.

Rights groups are also concerned about the dangerousness of boat crossings. In one particularly deadly incident, at least 27 people died when their dinghy sank during the crossing last year.

But these groups say the best way to tackle the problem is to overhaul the system and provide humanitarian visas, giving people a way to travel safely to Britain to have their asylum claims heard.

It can be done, said Andy Hewett, head of advocacy for the Refugee Council, an organization that works with refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. He cited the example of visas granted by the British government to Ukrainian refugees.

“There is no difference between the risks faced by refugees from Ukraine and the risks faced by refugees from other conflict zones around the world,” Mr. Hewett said.

The new plan depends on the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently before Parliament. The legislation would overhaul the UK immigration process and could criminalize entering the country without a valid visa or through what the government calls ‘irregular routes’.

When Britain began introducing the bill last year, the UN refugee agency said many of the proposals could undermine the country’s commitment to the 1951 UN Convention on the refugees. The convention states that people have the right to seek asylum in any country and that the country where they do so must consider their claim.

On Thursday, just hours after the announcement, the UN agency denounced the move, saying Britain’s arrangements would “abdicate responsibility to others and thus threaten the international refugee protection regime”.

Mr Hewett of the Refugee Council cited Australia’s widely criticized offshore detention scheme for asylum seekers, in which people trying to enter the country by boat are ferried to remote islands in the Pacific, like a example of what could go wrong for Britain.

The Australian measures have proven to be incredibly damaging to the mental health of people in the system, as well as costly for the government.

“There is a real human cost, but also, it will be enormously expensive financially,” he said. “And, more importantly, it will be completely ineffective.”

Research into an Israeli program that transported thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda from 2013 to 2017 found that they were not given sufficient protection there, then relied on smugglers to take them to Europe.

So rather than ending dangerous people smuggling, said Ms. Gardner of the Joint Council for Immigrant Welfare, the new policies could actually make the situation worse and “fuel a new wave of smuggling gangs to get out.” the people of Rwanda”.

Although it may take some time for the full details of the UK plan to be released, it is likely to face numerous legal challenges.

The proposal at the very least undermines the spirit of the international refugee agreement, Hewett said, and sets a “dangerous precedent” for other Western countries seeking to outsource to countries like Rwanda. .

“The end result will be that most of the refugee population will be hosted in developing countries,” he said.

“The number of people seeking asylum in the UK should be quite manageable for any government,” Mr Hewett said. “I think what this government has chosen to do is really underfund the asylum system.”

The asylum backlog has grown significantly in recent years, according to an analysis by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory. And under successive governments, provisions for those seeking asylum have diminished, with the focus instead on deterrence, amid cuts to housing and financial assistance.

Asylum seekers make up a small percentage of the total number of migrants in Britain, and compared to other countries in Europe, Britain takes in a much smaller proportion. In 2020, there were around six asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in Britain, while the European Union average was 11 asylum applications for every 10,000 people.

But there are huge backlogs in the system, and asylum seekers are often left in hotels or military barracks awaiting decisions.

Political pundits, rights groups and opposition lawmakers agree the plan would face a variety of legal hurdles before anyone could be flown to Rwanda. Previous efforts to discuss moving asylum seekers to Albania or Ghana to have their claims considered have come to nothing.

And details on who the new measures would apply to remain scarce. Ms Gardner said the scheme was announced with “a lot of rhetoric and little detail”, a sentiment shared by many asylum experts and politicians.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is making its way through Parliament, where it faced a number of defeats in the House of Lords. The Rwandan plan could depend on the adoption of this law, which would extend the provisions relating to the offshore processing of asylum applications.

Mr Johnson himself acknowledged on Thursday that there were hurdles to overcome, conceding that the plan “will not take effect overnight”.

Stephen’s Castle contributed report.

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