UK plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda raise four red flags

Like many others, I was shocked and upset to hear about the UK’s new deal to offload responsibility on tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Rwanda. The plan is for Rwanda to process and host such refugees indefinitely.

I have spent 12 years researching and working with refugees in East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, with a specific focus on livelihoods and survival. The experiences of Rwandan refugees I have interviewed who have fled the country, as well as refugees within the country, are often harrowing.

The United Nations and many other institutions and individuals have condemned the UK-Rwanda Agreement. The UN called it a violation of international law and Amnesty International called it “appalling”. Criticisms include that it repeals the principle of territorial asylum, meaning that people have the right to access the national asylum process in the country they enter. The first legal action establishes that both international law and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention have been violated, along with British data protection law.

Both my research findings and personal connections to Rwandan refugees have me seriously concerned about this movement. Here I share the biggest red flags. These include Rwanda’s human rights record; the treatment of arriving asylum seekers; and the disturbing transfer of responsibility for asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda and other poor refugee-hosting countries, and to aid agencies in the region.

Read more: Outsourcing of asylum seekers: the case of Rwanda and the UK

Rwanda’s human rights record

The first red flag is Rwanda’s human rights record and thus the environment that awaits asylum seekers.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called Rwanda “one of the safest countries in the world”. This label is useful for some actors, such as host countries and donors, but not for the refugees themselves.

While Rwanda has been widely presented as peaceful and stable since the 1990s, evidence-based reports from institutions including the United Nations and Amnesty International have challenged this narrative. The UK government itself, as recently as 2021, cited ongoing concern about the Rwandan government’s restrictions on civil and political rights and freedom of the press.

Like Rwandans, all asylum seekers and refugees who become residents of Rwanda face repression of freedom of expression and the right of association, along with the risk of arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture in the government detention centers. This risk is echoed by Rwandan refugees I have interviewed in Uganda, including several whose abuse by government authorities left them disabled.

In addition to the risk of human rights violations for asylum seekers inside Rwanda, there is deep concern that the authoritarian approach of the Rwandan government will be further legitimized through this agreement.

treatment of refugees

Related to this, the second red flag, and my main consideration, is how asylum seekers and refugees will be treated upon arrival in Rwanda.

This agreement builds on the offshoring approach pioneered by Australia. In a delocalization scenario, asylum seekers who arrive in Australia are immediately transported to a so-called “regional processing center”. These are found in Papua New Guinea, in the Republic of Nauru (Nauru) or on the island of Manus. Since the new policy was implemented in 2013, 4,183 people have been transferred abroad.

The UN and human rights groups and organizations have long denounced the approach and its inhumane policies. Upon arrival, asylum seekers are essentially treated like prisoners, with multiple rights violated, including through arbitrary detention and denial of medical care.

Those granted refugee status may remain in detention, integrate locally on Manus or Nauru with limited prospects, or, much more commonly, be resettled in a third country such as the United States.

Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat (or have done so since July 19, 2013) are permanently barred from settling in Australia, even if they are legally recognized as refugees.

Disclaimer

Building on this, the third red flag is that the UK is offloading responsibility for asylum seekers in other countries.

This is problematic in part because Rwanda, like most of the world’s major refugee-hosting countries, is a low-income country with a poverty rate of about 38%. The UK-Rwanda deal thus reinforces the worrying status quo of where refugees are housed in the world, with 85% housed in developing countries. According to some, the UK-Rwanda deal is nothing more than 21st century imperialism.

Disturbingly, other Western countries are increasingly legitimizing shifting responsibility onto other (poorer) countries. For example, in 2016, the EU bloc signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to prevent irregular migration from Turkey to Greece. Going a step further, in November 2021, the Danish government introduced a bill to outsource asylum claims, with asylum seekers relocated outside the EU during the asylum process.

Given these recent precedents, the new UK scheme is much more a continuation of a worrying trend than an innovation.

More work for aid agencies and other host countries

The fourth red flag is that the UK government’s refusal to take responsibility for asylum seekers within its own territory increases the responsibility of others. Ironically, this includes UK-funded humanitarian agencies.

Read more: Evaluation of Rwanda as a refugee hosting country

The UK will reportedly pay Rwanda £120m (around US$148m) for the initial 5-year deal, which will include accommodation and integration costs, as well as the delivery of asylum operations.

However, despite all the costs to get them there and process them, many asylum seekers may not choose to stay. This means that humanitarian programs funded by the UK and other countries will have much more work to do to help these people in Rwanda and elsewhere.

There is evidence of this in the secret agreement that Israel made with Rwanda and Uganda to send African asylum seekers to East African nations between 2014 and 2017. Research shows that the vast majority of refugees left immediately. This often happened through dangerous migration routes from the north in an attempt to reach Europe.

If asylum seekers leave Rwanda via those routes, it could strain the resources of UK-funded programmes, such as one that tackles unsafe migration through and from Ethiopia.

And, if asylum seekers choose to leave Rwanda and settle in nearby refugee-hosting countries, the need for donor assistance in those places will only increase.

Currently, the UK-Rwanda deal is being called into question, as it should be. It undermines the right of every human being to seek asylum, the broader norm of territorial asylum, and the commitments enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Problematically, outsourcing responsibility means outsourcing unnecessary challenges to asylum seekers themselves, as well as to Rwanda and neighboring countries that may ultimately host these refugees.

Author: Evan Easton-Calabria – Senior Research Fellow at the Feinstein International Centre, Tufts University and Research Associate at the Center for Refugee Studies, University of Oxford

Leave a Comment