Home Office gives asylum seekers the choice between return to the country they escaped or deportation to Rwanda. NGOs warn of risks of deportation of unaccompanied children wrongfully deemed adults by UK authorities and asylum seekers belonging to the LGBTQ community, targeted in Rwanda. Meanwhile, the deterrence effect seems limited as arrivals across the Channel approached 10,000 in 2022.

Following the controversial MoU signed with Rwanda – a country with a dubious human rights record – by the UK government to outsource asylum protection, the Home Office is giving asylum seekers ‘an offer you can’t refuse’. The Guardian has learned of documents issued to the first group of asylum seekers facing removal to the east African country stating: “You have the option to leave the UK voluntarily. However, should you be removed it will be to Rwanda”. Further, the document adds: “There is no right of appeal against the decision to treat your asylum claim as inadmissible”. The severely critisied Nationality and Borders Bill introduced a two-tier system criminalising spontaneous asylum seekers arriving irregularly. “It’s as if the Home Office is saying to this group of asylum seekers: ‘Here’s a hell we created for you in Rwanda but you can choose to go back to the hell you escaped from instead.’ This is not a choice. These are refugees who cannot return home. In practice this is ripping up the UK’s stated commitment to refugees,” said Karen Doyle of Movement For Justice. The asylum seekers detained for deportation to Rwanda reportedly include Syrians, Sudanese, Afghans, Eritreans, Iranians and Iraqis. According to Care4Calais, the organisation is “now working with 100 people in detention who have been told they are going to Rwanda – 7 have been told it’s imminent and 13 have been told 14 June – the latest report we heard is that a total of 130 people have been issued with Rwanda notices by the Government”.

Warnings of a “worrying pattern” of under-aged asylum seekers defined as adults and the risk of deportations of unaccompanied children to Rwanda has been raised by numerous NGOs. Care4Calais plans to challenge the Home Office in an age dispute over two teenagers both stating they are 16 years old, who have been issued with notices of removal. After conducting age assessments, the Home Office claims the two boys are 23 and 26 years old respectively. “It is essential that proper age assessments are done before any deportation takes place,” the organisation stated. The anti-trafficking charity Love146 UK warns that the organisation is seeing children “as young as 14 being incorrectly age-assessed as 23” adding: “The number of children we have seen who have just had 1999 put down as their date of birth when they are clearly under 18 is highly concerning, and putting young people at risk”. The organisation points out that: “It is not within the realm of possibility that anyone, especially someone trained in child protection, could look at the children we have seen and believe they are in their 20s”.

NGOs are also reporting of widespread fear among asylum seekers from the LGBTQ community over potential deportations to Rwanda. “Everyone we work with is completely terrified,” says Sonia Lenegan, legal and policy director at Rainbow Migration, supporting LGBTQ people in UK’s asylum system. While the African state decriminalised homosexuality in 2010, according to the British government’s own foreign office it “remains frowned upon” and the LGBTQ community is facing “societal abuse, including by authorities” and gender transitioning remains illegal. Further, according to LGBTQ Nation: “The Home Office admitted to the persecution of the LGBTQ community in Rwanda in a report” but denied it was systematic. “They are basing it on the idea that people are not actively prosecuted for being part of the LGBTQ community,” stated Daniel Sohege, director of Stand For All, further noting: “But there are multiple cases of people being prosecuted under public decency acts”. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported last year of arbitrary detention of gay and transgender people in the capital of Kigali on accusations of “not representing Rwandan values”. A day of action against the “Rwanda scheme” has been announced on 14 June and a legal challenge under emergency proceedings has been launched before the high court by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Care4Calais, and Detention Action, along with four asylum seekers to prevent deportations.

Meanwhile, the harsh deterrence measures from the UK government trying to prevent arrivals across the Channel seems to have limited effect. On 4 June the Guardian quoted government statistics revealing that 9,988 had reached the UK after crossing the Channel from France in 2022 so far – the number including children and babies. Recent years have marked a trend of increasing arrivals through the dangerous route with 28,526 making the crossing in 2021, compared with 8,466 in 2020, 1,842 in 2019 and 299 in 2018. Reportedly, “Refugees who worked alongside international organisations in Afghanistan” are contributing to this numbers – 2022 has seen a fivefold increase in arrivals by Afghans who have been fleeing in large numbers since the Taliban took over their country. An Afghan in Dunkirk, France asked media: “I’ve heard of the Rwanda scheme but they wouldn’t send me there, would they?” The man who has relatives in Southhampton added: “I worked with European organisations in Afghanistan for years. It was too dangerous to remain there”.

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