ISSN 2330-717X

Assessing The UK–Rwanda Migration Asylum Plan – Analysis

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By Richa Kumaria*

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The United Kingdom and Rwanda agreed to the Migration and Economic Development Partnership on 14 April 2022. The arrangement allows the UK to send an unspecified number of its asylum seekers to Rwanda. In return, the UK is providing £120 million for a development fund and to cover processing costs for resettled asylum seekers.1 The UK has also committed to host some vulnerable refugees from Rwanda. Since the announcement, the asylum arrangement has received criticism from several international and domestic actors.

Legal Challenges 

The first flight to Rwanda on 14 June 2022 was cancelled after a last-minute intervention from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) citing its ‘Rule 39’ provisions. The ruling stated that an Iraqi man named ‘KN’ faced “risk of irreversible harm” if sent to Rwanda.2  UK-based human rights organisations, such as Detention Action and Care4Calais, have also actively and successfully petitioned in UK courts against the removal of several individuals citing threat to their well-being. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has claimed that this move interferes with the right to apply for asylum under the 1951 International Refugee Convention of which the UK is a signatory. It not only alters the asylum claim provisions but also threatens the international framework for refugee protection. Additionally, the deal deviates from the guiding objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees that the UK supported in 2018.3

UK’s Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, in tandem with Article 31 of the 1951 Convention, provides refugees with legal protection against penalties. However, this protection is void in case of refugees “not arriving directly” and stopping in other countries before reaching the UK.4 Such cases have been particularly chosen for relocation, wherein, dangerous journeys have been made through small boats and lorries. In order to ensure a more equitable distribution of refugees across the continent, the UNHCR has strongly reiterated that asylum-seekers are not required to seek refuge in the first country they enter and are eligible for protection under Article 31.5 Penalties can only be imposed in cases of lawful applications for settlement in other countries before entering the UK.

The arrangement is also incongruent with the international law of ‘non-refoulement’. Article 33 of the refugee convention provides protection from return to not just countries of origin but also includes in its purview third countries where the individual may feel threatened.6 The UK’s recently introduced Nationality and Borders Act 2022 has altered and diluted this criteria of a ‘safe third country’. In addition, the UNHCR guidelines require individuals to have ‘meaningful connections’ with the receiving state.7   Section 16 of the 2022 Act now allows the Secretary of State to remove asylum seekers even in absence of a connection to the third state.8 Such moves undermine and destabilise the international legal provisions dealing with human security. The controversy has also re-ignited the long-standing dissension between domestic laws and international obligations. 

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It is pertinent to note that the UK–Rwanda partnership is not a legally binding agreement in international law.9 Due to the nature of the agreement, it also lies outside the purview of parliamentary review. While the agreement allows the setting up of a monitoring committee, parties are not allowed to appeal any further in case of violation of obligations. The absence of proper redressal mechanisms endangers the security of relocated individuals. Even if the host country is unable to fulfil its commitments, there is no legal provision for the individuals to move back to the UK. The legal credibility of the Migration Asylum Plan is currently under Judicial Review, with a hearing scheduled for September. 

Channel Crossings and Costs

The asylum deal is being championed on the claim that the arrangement dissuades irregular channel crossings and reduces financial burden on the state. The deal, however, has failed to deter Channel crossings. According to the UK’s Ministry of Defence data, in 2022, more than 27,000 people have already crossed the English Channel irregularly to arrive in the UK (see Figure below).10 The statistics are significantly higher than previous years. On 22 August alone, nearly 1,300 migrants crossed the channel, setting a new daily record.11   In addition, according to the Border Force Union, more than 60,000 people are expected to cross the Channel by the end of this year.12

Figure1.People Crossing the English Channel in Boats 

Similarly, the cost saving claims require greater scrutiny. While full details of the financial arrangement have not been revealed, an initial investment of £120 million has been made to Kigali as part of a new ‘Economic Transformation and Integration Fund’. In addition, the UK has also agreed to fund the accommodation, processing and five-year integration costs of each re-located individual.13 Some estimates suggest that the government could spend nearly £20,000–£30,000 for every resettled individual.14 Home Office Minister Tom Pursglove said that “the cost would be similar to the amount of money we are spending on this currently”.15 He claimed that the deal will reduce costs in the long-term. Recently, Yolande Makolo, a spokesperson of the Rwandan government, said that in contrast to the committed 1,000 for the initial phase, the country can currently accommodate only 200 migrants due to inadequate housing facilities.16

The presence of contrary evidence weakens the government’s claims on the intended impact of the policy. As legal challenges cast a pall of doubt over the implementation and the long-term efficacy of the deal, an effective reduction in costs and crossings is not guaranteed. If the deal gets implemented, large-scale removals would be required to actually deter migrations and save costs. More importantly, a migration deterrence deal cannot be expected to work in cases where humans flee persecution and undertake involuntary dangerous journeys in an attempt to save their lives.

Financial support by the UK government might be a helpful way to solve the immediate issues confronting Rwanda. The deal is currently a five-year arrangement. As a result, its long-term ability to support the country and the immigrants remains highly doubtful. In addition, the absence of checks and balances creates a lack of incentive for the recipient state to fulfil its obligations. Whether the finances are being spent on the intended objectives, that is the welfare of relocated asylum seekers, cannot be ensured. 

Rwanda’s Suitability as a Host Country

The practical assimilation of these refugees into Rwanda, amidst multiple human security threats, remains debatable. Rwanda already hosts nearly 1,50,000 refugees from several African countries and most unemployed refugees rely solely on state benefits of £35 per month.17 Of its estimated 13 million population, more than half of it survives on less than US$ 2 a day.18 COVID-19 and conflict-induced crises have also reduced the availability of resources to the local population, including access to proper food. Nearly 70 per cent of the population depends on sustainable farming for survival which is inextricably linked with high rural poverty.19 Additionally, Rwanda has a Human Development Index value of just 0.543, with a rank of 160 out of 189 countries.20 Additional refugees will inevitably put more pressure on an inadequate system.

The current agreement only excludes Rwandan nationals, unaccompanied children under 18 years and asylum seekers from EU countries.21 While the UK Home Office has emphasised on a case-by-case approach for removal, certain individuals under threat find no specific mention in the arrangement. These include members of the LGBTQI+ community. The Home Office itself, in its Country Policy and Information Notes (CPIN) report on Rwanda, has recognised instances of “discrimination and intolerance” against members of this community.22 Several human rights organisations have also accused the Rwandan government of unlawful arrests and killings. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2018, Rwandan authorities were alleged to have killed 12 Congolese refugees and arrested 60 over protests against food inadequacy.23 Such reports devalue Rwanda’s ability to follow provisions of the Refugee Convention. The arrangement also abdicates all forms of responsibility from the UK. In case of violation of human rights in Rwanda after relocation, the individuals will only have access to the Rwandan justice system for remedy.

To further assess the suitability and the efficacy of such deals, historical precedence needs to be taken into account. Since 2012, Australia has transferred more than 3,000 refugees to asylum camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. In addition to being exorbitant, the plan has failed to deter sea crossings. Australia’s offshore asylum processing systems have also faced allegations of medical neglect and inhumane conditions.24 Similarly, from 2013 to 2018, Israel attempted to formulate a similar secretive arrangement with Rwanda to transfer refugees. As several relocated individuals eventually moved out of Rwanda, the deal was halted after severe international criticism.25  

Conclusion

Attention has to be drawn to the concerning precedent that this deal may set. The asylum arrangement runs the risk of triggering similar policy reactions from other European states. Reports suggest that Denmark and Austria are in discussions with Kigali to implement a similar strategy of relocating refugees.26 Additionally, it cannot be guaranteed that these relocated individuals will not attempt to return to their preferred EU country through North Africa and via Central and Western Mediterranean routes.27  

Such decisions to outsource migrants falls short of offering long-term structural solutions that target the root cause of the issue. Inadequate systems of protection run the risk of escalating human insecurity further. In a broader inquiry, do such deals then signify a shift away from the global governance structures built for refugee protection, and are such bilateral engagements altering the course of the international refugee protection regime? Are such arrangements also marking a resurgence of the state-centric notion of security and subsequently a shift away from the non-traditional human security approach that the UN intended to advance? As the deal faces legal challenges, better-informed deductions on its success and failures can only be made in the long term.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

*About the author: Ms Richa Kumaria is Research Intern at Non-Traditional Security Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrrikar IDSA

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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