Why the UK chose Rwanda to process asylum seekers

Priti Patel visits central African country after finalising controversial deal

Waiting refugees, picked up at sea attempting to cross the Channel
Refugees, picked up at sea attempting to cross the Channel, wait to be taken for processing on the southeast coast of England
(Image credit: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

People seeking asylum in the UK will be sent to Rwanda for processing as part of a new agreement negotiated by Priti Patel.

The home secretary travelled to the central African country yesterday after finalising the deal, said to cost an initial £120m.

Labour has called it an “unworkable, unethical and extortionate policy” that will make it “harder not easier to get fast and fair asylum decisions”, while charities have expressed concern about sending asylum seekers abroad.

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Origins of the plan

To some extent, the policy “mirrors the approach taken by Australia, which has one of the strictest and controversial immigration regimes in the world”, said Nicole Johnston at Sky News. “Offshore processing of asylum seekers has been the cornerstone of the Australian government’s refugee policy for years,” she said.

At The Times, Matt Dathan agreed that Patel “hopes to emulate the approach taken by Australia”. Since she entered the Home Office in 2019, officials have been exploring measures to combat dangerous Channel crossings and “were told to engage in ‘blue-sky thinking’”, he said.

“Various destinations have been floated and dismissed as unviable or rejected by the host country,” added Dathan. This has included Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, Albania and Ghana, as well as Gibraltar and the Isle of Wight. “But Rwanda was always the most promising country with which to do a deal.”

Denmark already has an agreement in place with Rwanda to accept migrants, but it is not known if anyone has actually been sent to the African country from Europe.

Rwanda and the UK

The UK’s new partnership with Rwanda “is the centrepiece of a wider policy blitz” on migration, said the BBC’s Mark Easton, but it is “likely to prove hugely controversial and legally fraught”. It is expected to focus on single men, rather than women and children.

“Critics point to Rwanda’s poor human rights record,” he explained, meaning ministers will be expected to justify why it is “the right place to entrust with protecting the human rights of vulnerable asylum seekers who hoped the UK would protect them”.

Hosting an estimated 127,163 refugees and asylum seekers, Rwanda has shown that it is “hospitable towards refugees and has experience as a host”, said Cristiano d’Orsi, a lecturer in international law at the University of Johannesburg. It has become home to Congolese refugees, as well as a large number of people from Burundi, whose rights are “protected under various laws”, he wrote for The Conversation.

“Nevertheless, there are many rights they don’t have” and they are “still a long way away from being able to make independent lives for themselves”.

In the Daily Mail, Stephen Glover pointed to the conclusions of a 2020 report from Human Rights Watch that found high-profile government critics had been arrested or threatened and that “arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities continued”.

“Not the sort of place where most of us would choose to end up, or with whose government we should be seeking a close partnership,” said Glover.

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart this morning acknowledged that there had been claims of human rights abuses in Rwanda. But he told Sky News’s Kay Burley “that doesn’t alter the fact that their reputation as far as migrants is concerned and their economic progress is phenomenal – so I don’t think we want to write this off now”.

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