12 May 2022

In April 2022, the UK Government announced that some people who arrive in the UK via unofficial routes, such as on small boats crossing the English Channel, could be deported to Rwanda. Their asylum claims would be assessed in the African nation and, while those who receive asylum would be able to access employment, healthcare and social services, they would have very little chance of returning to the UK.

Human rights groups have launched various legal challenges to the policy and this is why, claims the Government, the plan has not yet started to deter unofficial Channel crossings, as intended.

The Government says relocating and deporting people to a new country is a way of undermining and reducing the traffickers. But the  Government plans, in effect, replicate the trade.

They will be moving bodies across borders without their consent, under coercion in exchange for money - as the Rwandan government will receive £120 million for the pilot. This exchange of people for money is exactly what traffickers do. How is this in any way different, apart from the fact it has a sheen of legality? 

There are serious ethical and moral issues here. Human rights are being violated, both in the legal and moral sense.

According to the UN Refugee Convention, people fleeing conflicts have the right to seek asylum. While countries do have a right to deny their asylum, they must at least listen to the asylum claim. This is not simply a nicety. It is a right human right. It is a right inscribed in the Refugee Convention.

Additionally, refugees or people seeking protection should not be penalised if they travel without documents. It is understood that if you're fleeing wars or if you have to leave quickly, your passport or ID card might be left behind or destroyed. In those cases, people still have a right to claim asylum.

Another concern in terms of human right violations centres on the choice of destination country: Rwanda.

Rwanda is not the safe haven the Government would have us believe. There have been human rights violations there that even the UK Government has criticised. Rwandans still flee oppression and persecution. This includes a number of journalists and political opponents. The choice of Rwanda in terms of their human rights track record is, at best, problematic.

There is also an issue in terms of international relations and burden sharing of refugees, and the responsibility of the UK in relation to other countries. What the UK Government is doing is violating the principle of the 'Global Compact on Refugees'. Although the compact is not legally binding, there is a moral and political obligation to comply with an agreement that has been approved by the international community.

The number of asylum seekers Western countries receive is always very, very limited. Some 89 to 90 per cent of refugees end up in regions of origin. What the UK Government is doing is more like burden passing.

And, in doing so, it's passing the burden back on to a country that is economically less developed and poorer than the UK. A rich nation is subcontracting out a responsibility to protect, handing out its human rights obligations to a poorer nation to deliver on its behalf.

There are more liberal ways forward. This may include setting up more legal routes for asylum seekers from different countries, not just from Ukraine. This would reduce the need for refugees to cross the hazardous Channel undocumented.

The Ukrainian refugee crisis has shown us a way forward. If there is political willingness, along with a national impetus, the public is very receptive. We need to level up and strengthen the current response and mobilise the national mood rather than creating obstacles that exacerbate the problem and do little to save endangered lives.

The Rwanda solution not only violates our obligations to civilised human rights, but it will inevitably create a larger market for the people smugglers, defeating its aims - even on its own terms.

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