Migrants not welcome: The UK Rwanda bill

Habiba Diaaeldin
Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

The UK policy of deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda is not only inhumane and against international law but is also unlikely to solve the problem of migration, writes Habiba Diaaeldin


In April 2022, then UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced a plan to deport asylum-seekers in the UK to Rwanda under his government’s newly enacted “safety of Rwanda bill,” generating significant controversy and described as incompatible with the UK’s international legal obligations.

Both the British Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the bill was incompatible with international conventions to which the UK is a signatory. In June 2022, the first flight carrying asylum-seekers from the UK to Rwanda was cancelled minutes before take-off after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued last-minute instructions to stop it.

Two years later, with a new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, now in office and despite international pressure the UK parliament has finally passed the bill. However, the controversy has not ended. Its high economic costs and concerns over human rights continue to render it contentious.  

Since the announcement of the provisions of the bill, it has been criticised by international organisations for potential human rights abuses and breaches of international law. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlighted the dangers of transferring refugees and asylum-seekers to third countries without sufficient safeguards, stating that such measures treat them like commodities transferred abroad for processing.

It accused the UK of attempting to evade its asylum responsibilities and international obligations by passing the Rwanda law.

The law has been described as a flagrant violation of international law, particularly the Geneva Conventions, also known as the 1951 Convention, to which the UK is a signatory. This convention includes the “non-refoulement” principle, which says that no one should be returned to a country where they could face torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or other irreparable harm.

In November 2023, the British Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda bill was illegal. It determined that foreigners sent to Rwanda risked being deported back to their countries of origin, where their safety could not be guaranteed. This would breach Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the court said, to which the UK is also a signatory.

In 2023, the ECHR stopped the first plane carrying asylum-seekers from departing from the UK for Rwanda. Its ruling barred the UK from removing migrants through such a scheme until the legal battle against it was resolved. Despite mounting domestic and international pressure to reconsider the legislation due to concerns about its compliance with international law, the UK government has announced that the new bill includes measures effectively ignoring injunctions from the ECHR.

British policymakers must be very optimistic if they believe that such measures will not harm their reputation on the international stage. However, it appears that they are more focused on the upcoming general elections in the UK, slated to take place on 4 July, even as immigration remains a major political issue in the country.

Like their counterparts in other European nations, UK policymakers are in some cases appealing to the far-right in an attempt to win more votes. Although the original law was presented by Johnson, Sunak seems to be leveraging it for his own political gain. This trend of adopting a tough stance on immigration to attract far-right votes is becoming increasingly common in Europe.

But Sunak’s strategy is a losing gamble. The country is so divided on the issue of migration that right-wing constituencies remain suspicious of any mainstream candidate who adopts their rhetoric. This suggests that echoing the far-right on migration will not even secure its votes. It is thus no surprise that despite making the Rwanda bill a headline policy, the governing Conservative Party is polling at all-time lows.

For most Britons, migration does not rank as a pressing issue. When asked to name the most important issue or issues facing the nation in 2023, only 21 per cent of respondents mentioned immigration in one poll. An election win based on this policy alone is unlikely.

Yet, while domestic and international pressure does not seem to be stopping British policymakers from pressing ahead with the Rwanda bill, the question arises of whether it will achieve its intended outcomes. The bill’s financial costs might outweigh its political gains. The National Audit Office, the UK’s official spending watchdog, estimates that plans to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda will cost UK taxpayers £1.8 million for each of the first 300 people the government deports.

The overall cost of the scheme stands at more than £1.5 billion, according to publicly available figures. Sunak has already committed to paying £370 million from the public purse over the five-year deal, meaning that even if the UK sends nobody to Rwanda, a significant amount of money will still have been spent. The huge initial sum and the ongoing costs raise serious questions about the cost-effectiveness of this policy.

The policy is not only costly, but it might also fail to be politically effective. Offshoring as a migration-management strategy is not unprecedented. In 2001, Australia attempted to offshore asylum-seekers on its territory to detention centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the South Pacific Island nation of Nauru for processing. The EU also already employs externalisation policies, financing transit through third states to keep migrants and asylum-seekers away from European shores.

The EU’s new migration pact is intended to further entrench this policy through the introduction of a “solidarity mechanism” that can be used to finance detention centres in third states. A comparable case is Israel’s offshoring of asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Its “voluntary departures” plan aimed to relocate Eritrean and Sudanese refugees to Rwanda and Uganda. The refugees, some of whom had been living in Israel for more than five years, were given the choice between living in an Israeli jail, often in the desert, or accepting around $3,500 to be “voluntarily” deported to Rwanda or Uganda.

However, in this case Rwanda never fulfilled its side of the bargain. A report by Israeli researchers published in 2018 found that deportees from Israel had their travel documents seized upon arrival in Rwanda and were denied access to asylum. Many were robbed or imprisoned in a “hotel” upon arrival. Only seven out of the thousands deported by Israel to Rwanda remained in the country, while the rest continued their life-threatening search for asylum elsewhere.

This raises serious questions about the definition of a “safe country.” The UK-Rwanda scheme is premised on Rwanda being a safe country. However, the experience of asylum-seekers deported from Israel has shown that Rwanda is not a safe country. Safety should not be defined merely by low crime rates, a criterion by which Rwanda might score well, but should instead have to do with the safety and the treatment of asylum-seekers, an area where Rwanda has already proven to be unsafe.

The UK’s Rwanda policy is not only inhumane, but it is also unlikely to solve the problem of migration to the UK. During Israel’s policy of deporting asylum-seekers to the country, the Rwandan authorities were helpful in facilitating the movement of refugees to Europe. They had no obligation to detain or to process people, nor to help them find work or opportunities. So why would anyone stay?

Ultimately, the fate of the UK’s Rwanda bill is likely to mirror that of Israel’s voluntary departures plan. The bill is unlikely to deter illicit migration, and years after unveiling the bill, irregular migration to the UK has already increased by 17 per cent. By violating principles of international humanitarian law, such as non-refoulement, it also endangers the lives of asylum-seekers at huge financial cost.

The UK bill can be seen as an extension of the externalisation policies adopted by the EU and other countries in the Global North. These policies, already tested for years, have proven to be ineffective.


The writer is a researcher at the Al-Habtoor Research Centre in Cairo.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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