In March, the UK government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (which is clumsily shortened to DLUHC) and the British Home Office jointly announced that individuals, families, charities or businesses – in short, just about anybody – can sponsor Ukrainian refugees to escape the war and come to the UK for an initial period of 12 months. This was followed by a slew of feel-good PR photos of Britons welcoming Ukrainians in railway stations with warm hugs as they got off the trains, underscoring how Britain is doing its bit to help underdog Ukraine win its fight against Goliath Russia and how the UK is joining the rest of EU in taking the side of Ukraine.
Contrast this to the shocking announcement on April 14, 2022, that Britain and Rwanda had officially signed an agreement that will round up and relocate illegal migrants – mainly single men – seeking to settle in Britain, to refugee holding facilities 6,000 kilometres away in another continent to await the processing of their papers: Rwanda in Africa. As if that is not enough, the fine print says that these relocated refugees shall be ‘encouraged’ to continue to stay in Rwanda for a further five years after their papers are approved and their immigration status is regularised. The system is not unlike the old practice of shipping out toxic waste from developed countries to Third World landfills and pretending that the payment for the service was adequate “development fees”.
The deal was signed between Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, and Vincent Biruta, Rwanda's minister of foreign affairs, during a visit to Kigali in April and Britain has even paid Rwanda an initial $156 million for a five-year trial plan. Britain will also pay Rwanda for each migrant the African nation accepts.
While the UK government has promised smooth operations, it is unclear how asylum seekers relocated from the UK might be accommodated in Rwanda, beyond temporary plans to convert a former hostel into a detention center. There is also no clear idea of what will happen to those who are not granted asylum.
Comparing the Rwanda deal, then, with the safe haven opened up to Ukrainian refugees in recent weeks, it is clear that UK immigration policy is biased in terms of race, religion, and skill-set. The Rwanda policy is wrong in so many ways that it has aroused the ire of refugee support organizations and human rights activists around the world and even religious leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury are adding their (raised) voices to the argument. In his Easter sermon, the Archbishop Justin Welby — the most senior cleric in the Anglican Church — criticized the policy saying, “Subcontracting out our responsibilities, even to a country that seeks to do well, like Rwanda, is the opposite of the nature of God.”
The policy targets mainly asylum seekers who cross into British waters via the English Channel in small boats. More than 4,500 migrants have crossed the English Channel from France to Britain in small boats this year, four times more than the total this time last year. Overcrowded and without safety measures like life rafts, there have been dozens of fatalities, including 27 migrants who drowned when their boat capsized off the northern French coast in November 2021.
The British government clearly knows that the prospect of being sent to Rwanda, which is not exactly known for respecting human rights, is repugnant to migrants because a key explanation for the policy was that it will deter asylum-seekers from choosing the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that the UK is “a beacon of openness and generosity”. He lauded the great British tradition of offering sanctuary to those who seek it through legal routes while outlining how he intends to curb what he termed illegal migration. He has already suggested that the Rwanda scheme a prototype which could be replicated elsewhere.
“The persistent circumventing of our laws and immigration rules and the reality of a system that is open to gain and to criminal exploitation has eroded public support for Britain's asylum system and those who genuinely need access to it,” Priti Patel said. “Putting evil people, smugglers, out of business is a moral imperative. It requires us to use every tool at our disposal and also to find new solutions.
She promised that asylum-seekers relocated to Rwanda “..would have their asylum claims decided and those who are resettled will be given the support, including up to five years of training, with the help of integration, accommodation, [and] health care so that they can resettle and thrive.”
Further, the UK-Rwanda immigrant relocation deal was painted as an economic win-win for both countries by Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta who told reporters that “This [plan] will not only help them, but it will benefit Rwanda and Rwandans and help to advance our own development.”
Refugee rights groups say that the first objection to the scheme is that it strips refugees of their right, as afforded by the International Refugee Convention, to have their cases considered in the country in which they have chosen to seek refuge. It denies them agency. It doubles their displacement. And it exposes them to prolonged uncertainty and further risk, namely, Rwanda’s worrying human rights record. In fact, London itself has flagged human rights concerns about Rwanda and in 2018, in particular, a dozen refugees were reportedly killed by Rwandan police after protests outside the offices of the UN high commissioner for refugees in Karongi district.
However, having signed the agreement, Patel says Rwanda is “..a safe and secure country with the respect for the rule of law and clearly a range of institutions that evolved and developed over time.” She also said Rwanda already has resettled almost 130,000 refugees from multiple countries.
While the UK government has said that the scheme will apply mainly to undocumented single men and strike at the root of people smuggling, research shows that it does not cut back on migrant numbers.
“If that is the case, what you might find is that the next boats coming across the Channel will carry those groups which are not going to go to Rwanda — we might see increased numbers of women and children coming on that boat," said Madeline Gleeson, a senior research fellow at the Kaldor Center for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, "And the concern there is if those boats sink or if they run into trouble, you’re likely to have a much higher human toll if there are more women and children on the boat.”
James Wilson, deputy director of the group Detention Action, called the policy “inhumane, expensive and ineffective”.
“The U.K. is a signatory to the refugee convention. We have a legal and moral obligation to be assessing any asylum claims to the U.K. in the U.K.”
But what is the alternative to the very real issue of illegal migration? This kind of subcontracting of ‘migration pressure’ is not new. Britain has historically practiced similar management of prison overcrowding by shipping off criminals and prisoners to distant colonies like Australia. More recently, until 2014, Australia sent thousands of migrants to offshore processing centers in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus Island. Many asylum-seekers are still being held in these facilities. The policy failed to deter migrants, says Madeline Gleeson.
“In the first year of offshore processing being in place, more people arrived in Australia by boat than at any other time in recorded history of asylum-seekers arriving that way,” she said. “(In the case of Britain), There will be a cap on how many people can go to Rwanda. And so, the U.K. risks running into the problem we found here in Australia, which is very quickly — within 12 weeks of this policy starting — we had already maxed out the full capacity offshore.”
Going by earlier patterns, there are also concerns that the migrants who are sent to Rwanda will simply try again to reach Britain, thereby fueling the human trafficking gangs that operate from Africa to Europe and on toward the English Channel.
Wilson said the government should provide safe routes for refugees to reach Britain. “A humanitarian visa system, so that those who have reached France and are looking to claim asylum in the U.K. and having some grounds for doing that would be able to apply for a visa to come to the U.K. to have their asylum claim considered. If we put that kind of scheme in place, which we think is entirely practicable, it would end the need for Channel crossings,”
Britain says asylum-seekers should apply for refugee status in the first safe country they arrive in, including France. The United Nations disagrees. “There's nothing in international law that says you have to ask in the first country you encounter,” said Larry Bottinick, a senior legal officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR understands the frustration of the U.K. government on that and is not in favor of Channel crossing, of course. We think there's more effective ways and more humane ways to address this,” Bottinick told The Associated Press.
The EU, meanwhile, is in talks, via its border and coastguard agency Frontex, with the government of Niger to establish frontier zones on African soil. With the support of the International Organization for Migration, the aim is to keep undocumented people there while their cases are processed.
This attempt to move the immigration process offshore is part of a wider strategy deployed by the powerful governments of richer nations, from Australia to the EU, to discourage unwanted arrivals by creating conditions that are hostile or inhumane.
Writing in The Conversation, Parvati Nair, Professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration Studies at Queen Mary University of London, has said, that research shows that plans like these are a strategy of empowerment for already powerful nations. They allow them to offload, back to poorer countries, unwanted migrants, especially those who come from outside of Europe. At the same, they give those richer nations a political and economic foothold in regions of interest.
Decoding the implications of the deal, Nair says, the UK’s offer of $156 million to kickstart this partnership is attractive for Rwanda precisely because it comes under the aegis of development. The country is ranked 160th out of 189 in the 2021 Human Development Index, has long been a recipient of UK foreign aid and international assistance and already hosts nearly 130,000 refugees, 90% of whom remain in refugee camps and transit centres. The scheme would help elevate Rwanda’s international profile as an engaged partner in global migration and refugee governance.
Africa is both struggling to develop amid myriad environmental, social and economic problems and is rich in resources, Nair says. Not only does Rwanda have a mining industry in tin ore, gold, tungsten ore and methane, it is also home to Lake Kivu, which is enormously rich in gases and a potential source for energy generation.
The Rwanda scheme presents troubling echoes of the UK’s imperial past: the colonial transportation of slaves and indentured workers across continents and seas; the empowerment of the imperial heartland through the violence that accompanied its historical ravages, for which reparation can never be complete. In a repeat of colonial politics, it tasks Africa yet again with working to the UK’s interests for only short-term financial benefits.
In the long term, Africa’s needs - and that of the asylum-seekers - remain unmet.