UK-Rwanda: One Way Ticket

We can only wonder if this isn’t akin to regular human trafficking: people being exchanged for money, while their dreams of a better life are crushed by migration deterrence policies.

It was on April 14th of this year that Boris Johnson, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced one of the most controversial measures concerning immigration law and policy: he intended to redirect asylum seekers who had entered the United Kingdom irregularly (since January 1 of this year) to Rwanda. The partnership between the two countries that is estimated to cost more than 120 million pounds to the government of Boris Johnson, now led by Liz Truss, has been postponed until September of this year by order of the Supreme Court.

In the words of the former Minister and the current President of the government, the aim is to combat “illegal” crossings, but above all to prevent human trafficking. As such, the migrants would stay in Rwanda to await the decision of their asylum application, in the meantime, they would have the opportunity to build a new life. The truth, is that the scheme that the UK intends to implement, is not new to the international community.

 

Precedents

Australia – Papua New Guinea: 

From 2013 until 2021, the “offshore processing” agreement between australia and PNG was in effect, which consisted of detaining migrants who arrived in Australia irregularly and relocating them to a processing center located on Manus Island. According to the Human Rights Watch organization (HRW), 12 people died in this period of time and dozens more were beaten by local groups. Adding to the situation is a history of depression and suicide, as was made clear in the report by the HRW team, which made a visit to the island of Manus. These refugees were living in deplorable situations, with little access to sanitary and hygienic conditions, as well as health care.

 

Israel – Rwanda:

Unlike the UK, Israel has never made a formal agreement with Rwanda, and unlike the UK, it was not compulsory, but rather given as an option. However, the truth is that for those who experienced it, it felt more like an imposition. In a BBC interview, Eritrean Bahabelom Mengesha explained that the Israeli government, when revoking his permit after four years in Israel, gave him three options: “be sent home, go to a migrant detention facility, or take $3,500 and a one-way flight to Rwanda”.

These being the options given to refugees, it stands to reason that the least torturous choice would be to accept the one-way flight to Rwanda. Between going back to the country of origin, which for many would mean persecution, hostility and violence or going to a detention center, synonymous with prison. As Bahabelom said, “it felt like no choice at all.”

 

Beyond these examples, which demonstrate the weakness of this scheme on an ethical and moral level, it breaks the international law. With the accession of the United Kingdom to the convention relating to the status of refugees (but also to other international conventions, not forgetting the importance of international custom) it was obliged to fulfill its international commitments. According to Article 33 of this Convention, “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion”, thus enshrining the principle of non-refoulement.

 

Based on the reading of the article, it is understood that there is a limitation to the sovereignty of the signatory countries, which are limited by the respect of this rule. It should be noted that the irregularity of an individual’s entry into the territory of a state is irrelevant to the application of this article (article 31). In a country where 12,838 asylum requests were registered in 2021, although there is no criminalization of homosexuality, the LGBTQIA + community is marginalized. In 2021 “Rwandan authorities rounded up and arbitrarily detained over a dozen gay and transgender people, sex workers, street children, and others in the months before a planned June 2021 high-profile international conference”. People interviewed who identified as gay or transgender said that security officials accused them of “not representing Rwandan values”. There are also serious violations regarding the right to political association and freedom of expression. Going back to 2018, authorities killed 12 refugees, arrested 60, and used excessive force against protesters who rose up against food cuts, and HRW found that they were charged with participating in “illegal demonstrations, violence against public authorities, rebellion, and disobeying law enforcement”. Some were also charged with spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.

 

It is clear that despite claims by the government suggesting that Rwanda is ready to receive refugees and asylum seekers, international reports on fundamental rights suggest otherwise.

We should not underestimate the UK’s responsibility to protect these people. In addition to what we have just said about the relocation of refugees to Rwanda, with the passage by parliament of the “Nationality and Borders Bill” (2022), it will harm refugees who enter British soil irregularly, causing them to receive less protection. Serious violations of the Geneva Convention that should be punished by the international community and international organizations.

 

Unfortunately, this scheme is not only being considered in the UK, but has spread to other European countries like Denmark, where the possibility of sending refugees to countries outside Europe is on the table, although nothing is set in stone, since they have not yet arranged partnerships with third countries.

 

We can only wonder if this isn´t akin to regular human trafficking: people being exchanged for money, while their dreams of a better life are crushed by migration deterrence policies. If we extract anything from this article, it is that the principle of non-refoulement is the backbone of the global asylum system, so the UK has a duty to welcome refugees, honoring its international commitments.

 

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