Reportedly, the UK government plans to start informing asylum seekers of potential deportation to Rwanda expecting the first flights “in the coming months”. However, the storm of critique over the controversial plan continues with the Home Office facing legal challenges, warnings and protests and its own assessments pointing to a series of issues and concerns related to the human rights situation facing asylum seekers in Rwanda.

Amid legal challenges, critique and protests the UK government is pressing on with its controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Reportedly, the Home Office will start notifying asylum seekers who potentially face deportation prioritising people who arrived in the UK after May 9. The recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with Rwanda and plan to outsource asylum protection to the African country – with a dubious human rights record – was meet with an outcry. The critique came promptly from all directions including internationally from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), INGOs and academia, and nationally from civil servants, trade unions, political opposition and NGOs. The plan is facing numerous legal challenges including a legal action aiming to challenge Home Secretary Priti Patel in the high court over breaches of international law, including the UN Refugee Convention as well as the British data protection law. The legal action was launched by the law firm InstaLaw on behalf of an Iranian asylum seeker, who according to partner at the law firm, Stuart Luke: ”could be the only Iranian in the country,” where he would have no network: “no community, no one who speaks the language”. Luke asked: “How’s he going to manage, survive? How’s he going to find a job, get educated?”. After initially assuring that the Iranian national would not be deported prior to 10 May the Home Office has reportedly confirmed it is no longer looking to deport him. Chief executive at the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson warns that his organisation is: “hearing directly from many people seeking asylum of the distress and anxiety recent announcements have provoked. People are telling us that they feel less safe and less welcome in the UK,” and concludes: “It’s therefore unsurprising that people’s psychological safety and sense that they are welcome has been eroded, and that people [are] considering going underground leaving themselves without formal support and in very vulnerable positions”.

On 10 May the Home Office published updated guidance on inadmissibility, new equality analysis, and four new country information reports in relation to Rwanda. The Home Office’s own assessment prior to the signing of the MoU with Rwanda found: “some concerns with its human rights record around political opposition to the current regime, dissent and free speech,” as well as over the treatment of LGBTQI+ people noting that transgender people: “may face greater risk of ill-treatment such as arbitrary arrests and detention as well as degrading treatment”. The assessment however actually downplays the risks according to Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Lewis Mudge stating: “The Home Office’s report reads like some serious wishful thinking, they seem to change the facts in order to justify a preordained conclusion, from claiming that refugees are not targeted for exercising their freedom of expression – when Congolese refugees rot in jail for protesting their living conditions – to claiming that LGBT people won’t risk serious harm in Rwanda – when evidence we have collected has LGBTI people detained, beaten, insulted and harassed for their sexual identity”. Further, the released batch of documents from the Home Office highlights shortcomings in the Rwandan asylum system. Asylum seekers may have to wait years for a decision and two-thirds are ultimately rejected. Asylum seekers would be eligible to deportation if their claims are deemed inadmissible and they arrived by a small boat or another “dangerous” method after 1 January 2022. Asylum seekers with a connection to a safe country apart from the UK or their home country would be deemed inadmissible – that includes people who are believed to have been recognised as a refugee, applied or have had the opportunity to apply for asylum or travelled through such a country “on the balance of probabilities”. Guidance for Home Office staff provides examples such as people who “passed through Belgium” stating: “An admission from the claimant that they had spent a couple of weeks in Brussels staying with friends while trying to find an agent to bring them illegally to the UK would likely constitute evidence that they had been in that particular country”. Immigration minister, Tom Pursglove does not rule out that Ukrainian refugees could be deported to Rwanda and further indicates that Afghans who served with the British Army could face removal under the policy as well.

Home Secretary, Priti Patel who was recently interrupted while speaking at the Bassetlaw Conservatives Spring Dinner in Nottinghamshire by activists calling the Rwanda plan “racist” and “inhumane” has received severe critique over her spearheading of UK asylum policies. The volunteer run charity Care4Calais points to her systematic deflection of responsibility over failed policies, stating: “When she insisted on sending refugees to Napier Barracks and they caught COVID she blamed the refugees themselves. Faced with backlogs in the UK asylum system she blames people smugglers and “economic migrants”. And now her badly-thought-through Rwanda scheme is unravelling, she blames the lawyers who have asked her to explain it properly”.

UNHCR reiterated earlier warnings over the plan with the agency’s acting representative to Britain, Larry Bottinick, stating to media: “We are worried that they [the UK] are inviting all their European counterparts to do the same,” and further noting: “I can understand from their perspective why they would do that — it would give such deals more perceived legitimacy if others do the same”. Apart from post Brexit UK, Denmark – with opt-outs of the EU asylum cooperation is also seeking to outsource asylum protection to Rwanda. However, despite its inherent risks, it’s consequences for asylum seekers, and its potential to ‘inspire’ similar attempts – with practical details of the plan still unclear and Home Secretary Priti Patel initially refusing to disclose key framework documents, it has been denounced as a “publicity stunt” to deter irregular crossings of  the Channel. Meanwhile arrivals across the channel continue with reports of 169 arrivals on 8 May and 40 arrivals on 9 May.

For further information:

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.