Refugee removal to Rwanda by plane: Is the deal worth it?
Dr Ruth Brittle considers human rights fears in sending refugees to Rwanda
The controversial five-year asylum deal with Rwanda, worth an initial £120m, has drawn widespread criticism including three Conservative MPs who described the deal as establishing a British ‘Guantanamo Bay’ (House of Commons debate, 22 March 2022). The government’s justification for the deal is that it will deter irregular entry to the UK and will break the ‘business model’ of smugglers and traffickers.
How will it work?
Under the UK-Rwanda Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the UK will ‘relocate’ people to Rwanda for claims processing – and if recognised as refugees, they will stay in Rwanda, without the option to return to the UK. The deal undermines key international obligations on refugee protection – such as the obligation of non-refoulement - and violates fundamental human rights. There is evidence of widespread human rights abuses in Rwanda (see, for example,Human Rights Watch Report on Rwanda, 2022) – and the UK will be in breach of Article 3 ECHR, because refugees are likely to face torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, including persecution, inadequate accommodation and healthcare and so on. The UK government argued this deal does not breach international law, because Rwanda is a safe third country which respects human rights and has a functioning asylum system. But as recently as January 2021, the UK government did not consider Rwanda a ‘safe third country’ and condemned its human rights record, including persecution of the LGBTI community.
Previous attempts to offshore asylum processing, such as the Australian version, have not worked –and have cost taxpayers a huge amount of money (AUS $6bn). This deal has not been costed, but some have estimated it will cost £1.4bn (Refugee Council) and does not represent value for money (Permanent Secretary, 13 April 2022).
Are there alternatives?
The government rejects claims there are alternative safe and legal methods to manage refugees. Alternatives proposed by charities (eg Refugee Council and Safe Passage) include humanitarian visas, family reunion routes, sponsorship or further resettlement schemes. These proposals, which would ensure people do not have to resort to smuggling networks to undertake dangerous journeys, have been ignored – as they all involve accommodating and supporting refugees in the UK which does not fit the mantra to ‘take back control’ of the UK’s borders.
The first flight
The first flight to Rwanda was due to leave MoD Boscombe Down at 10.30pm on Tuesday 14 June 2022, bound for Kigali International Airport. The plane was supposed to be for asylum seekers who had received removal direction notices and were due to be relocated to Rwanda. Only people who had made irregular journeys to the UK (eg by small boat) and who had not made a claim for asylum were eligible. By 10pm on 14 June, no-one was left on the flight to Rwanda, thanks to individual temporary stays on removal, an interim measure granted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) under Rule 39 – and injunctions granted by the Court of Appeal late on Tuesday evening.
The political fallout
Both Boris Johnson and Priti Patel were quick to blame ‘lefty’ human rights lawyers for disrupting the process and delaying the removals. Although the individuals on this flight have interim relief from removal, the government are not deterred – and have announced that the next group of asylum seekers are receiving their notices and another flight is being arranged.
It is shameful that both the Bar Council and Law Society had to issue a joint statement to defend the work of lawyers involved and to speak out against the inflammatory language used by Johnson and Patel after the flight was abandoned (costing at least £500,000). Lord Reed said: ‘in bringing [the] application, the appellant’s lawyers were performing their proper function of ensuring that their clients are not subjected to unlawful treatment at the hands of the Government’. The lawyers acting for the individuals followed due legal process by challenging these removal notices and applying to the High Court for judicial review of the legality of the policy. Such legal action is necessary to ensure the rule of law is upheld and to challenge a policy which is illegal under international law and undermines the international refugee system.
Is the Rwandan policy lawful?
Crucially, the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have not yet made a decision about whether the Rwandan policy is lawful – and will only consider that question at the substantive judicial review hearing in July 2022. However, shipping refugees 4,000 miles away, to a place with limited human rights protection, provides some credence to the ‘British Guantanamo’ accusation.
Ruth Brittle is a lecturer at Nottingham Law School: ntu.ac.uk