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UK unveils plan to ‘offshore’ refugees to Rwanda

British officials are seeking to reduce cross-channel migration by exporting their asylum obligations to Rwanda, but the unusual plan faces political and legal barriers that may be insurmountable.

LONDON (CN) — The British government intends to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as part of a so-called migration and economic development partnership with the Rwandan government.

The radical new approach to British asylum policy was announced on Thursday, following months of speculation surrounding the possibility of "offshoring" the nation’s refugee obligations to another country.

Under the plan, asylum seekers arriving in Britain through illegal routes will be flown more than 4,000 miles to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. They will then have their asylum applications processed while held in immigration facilities. If their application is successful, they will be given the opportunity to settle in the small east African republic.

The government hopes in the long term that the plan will reduce the pressure on the southern coast of England, where thousands of refugees have been arriving in small boats after an often perilous journey across the English Channel. The number of people attempting to cross the channel has more than doubled compared to this time last year, with an estimated 5,000 arrivals since January alone.

British authorities have struggled to keep up with the number of cross-channel journeys being made, adding to the dangers faced by refugees attempting entry in this way. Last November, 27 people tragically died after their boat capsized in freezing waters, with authorities failing to reach the stranded refugees in time.

“There are currently 80 million displaced people in the world, many in failed states where governments can’t meet their aspirations," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his announcement of the plan Thursday. "The answer cannot be for the U.K. to become the haven for all of them. We’ve got to be able to control who comes into this country and the terms on which they remain. And we must do this in the spirit of our history of providing refuge.”

“And that is what I think is most exciting about the partnership we have agreed with Rwanda today,” he continued, “because we believe it will become a new international standard in addressing the challenges of global migration and people smuggling."

Speaking in Rwanda, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Rwanda has one of the strongest records of refugee resettlement and in recent years Rwanda has resettled over 100,000 refugees.”

She added, "This agreement fully complies with all international and national law, and as part of this ground-breaking agreement, the U.K. is making a substantial investment in the economic development of Rwanda.”

The total cost of the partnership has not been revealed, though an upfront sum of around 120 million pounds ($157 million) has been widely reported.

The announcement does not come as a complete surprise to those following the U.K.’s shifting asylum strategy. The government was known to be exploring locations to which it could potentially outsource refugee processing, having also reportedly made approaches to the governments of Albania and Ghana.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, England, following a small boat incident in the English Channel on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP)

In addition, the Nationality and Borders Bill current passing though Parliament includes provisions to legalize the practice of offshoring. The House of Lords has repeatedly voted down the sections of the bill which authorize offshoring, which has slowed the passage of the legislation through Parliament.

The proposals have been met with fierce criticism in the U.K. The opposition Labour Party’s home affairs spokesperson, David Lammy, labeled them a “morally bankrupt, shameful and unworkable plan.” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon slammed the plan as “despicable”, while Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford similarly described the idea as “cruel and inhumane.”

Criticism also comes from the government’s own side. Speaking on BBC Radio, Conservative Member of Parliament Andrew Mitchell said, "The problem with the scheme that they have announced is that I don't think it will work. It is impractical, it is being condemned by churches and civil society, it is immoral and, above all for conservative advocates, it is incredible expensive.”

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In addition to domestic opposition, the United Nations has also condemned the plan.

“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy," the U.N.’s refugee agency said in a statement. "They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.” It accused Britain of “threatening the international refugee protection regime that has stood the test of time and saved millions of lives over the decades.”

Along with opposition to the concept of offshoring, concerns have also been raised about the suitability of Rwanda as a host country for vulnerable and often traumatized refugees. In a 2021 report on human rights in the country, Amnesty International highlighted that “violations of the rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression and privacy continued, alongside enforced disappearances, allegations of torture and excessive use of force.”

In addition, of particular concern is an incident in 2018, in which 12 Congolese refugees were killed by Rwandan police after protesting a reduction in their food allowances.

In this light, the legality of the plan has also been widely questioned, given the U.K.’s existing treaty obligations. Human Rights Watch stated that “offshore processing is not only cruel and ineffective, but also very likely to be unlawful.”

“It creates a two-tiered refugee system that discriminates against one group based on their mode of arrival, despite refugee status being grounded solely on the threat of persecution or serious harm and international standards recognizing that asylum seekers are often compelled to cross borders irregularly to seek protection," the group said.

The prime minister acknowledged the likelihood of extensive legal challenges to the plan in his Thursday statement, attacking what he called “a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who for years who have made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government” and admitting that as a result “this system will not take effect overnight.”

The timing of the announcement has also been viewed by the government’s domestic political opponents as deeply cynical. Two days before the announcement, Johnson was fined by police for attending a birthday party in summer 2020 in violation of tight pandemic restrictions in place at the time, escalating a high stakes political scandal that has been rumbling for months.

In addition to prime minster, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak – the U.K.’s second most powerful politician – was also fined. Sunak had been championed as Johnson’s likely successor if the scandal brought down the prime minister, but his ascension to the top job now seems highly unlikely, leaving the ruling Conservative Party with no obvious replacement for Johnson.

Johnson, who is familiar with scandal, is widely known to favor a so-called “dead cat” tactic when dealing with negative media coverage. The tactic involves making unusual or attention grabbing announcements designed to move the news cycle on from a more damaging story.

However, the likely prospect of more police fines over the next few weeks for alleged further breaches of the rules threaten Johnson’s attempts to move the news cycle on from a scandal that has largely destroyed his public popularity.

The widespread suggestion that the prime minister has brought forward the Rwandan partnership announcement for his own political convenience may well further undermine the credibility of the plan.

For the time being, it appears that there are far more people lined up to oppose Rwandan offshoring than there are willing to publicly support it. The implementation of the controversial scheme, therefore, seems far from certain.

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