Cruel Novelty or Panic Reaction: the UK Government’s Rwanda Plan

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove and Minister for Immigration Robert Jenrick to discuss progress on work to stop the boats in September 2023 (Photo by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street)

In spite of having exited the European Union – thus not providing the mobility and ease of employment, among other, standardized possibilities for integration – the United Kingdom remains a central destination for migrants aiming to get to European countries. Mismanagement of arrivals, the aggressive tactics of human smugglers and a politically fragile situation severely limit what the UK can do. But there is no shortage of radical ideas, while the boats are just coming and coming.

Asylum claims exceeded 36,000 in the first half of 2023. Over 89 000 people requested asylum in total in 2022. Roughly 45 percent of those were arrivals by small boats.  A peak of roughly 103,000 applications per year, including dependents, were filed in 2002 as a result of people fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq.  Then, claims began to decline precipitously, reaching a 20-year low of 22,600 in 2010.

But as more refugees left Syria in the 2010s, the numbers increased once more. Afghanistan accounted for the greatest number of asylum seekers in the first half of 2023 (3 366). With just over 3,200 applications, Iran was the next largest group, followed by India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.  Albania accounted for the largest number of asylum seekers in 2022—nearly 16,000 individuals, including dependents. The majority (67%) came in small boats. It is important to note that the numbers above do not include the arrivals of Ukrainians.

It is evident that action must be taken to prevent the deaths of migrants while also controlling immigration to the United Kingdom and dismantling the operations of people smugglers. Although it may seem shocking, the UK government’s plan to transfer individuals with pending asylum requests to Rwanda is not without precedent.

The UK Government’s Rwanda Scheme

To some extent, the policy “mirrors the approach taken by Australia, which has one of the strictest and controversial immigration regimes in the world”, said Nicole Johnston at Sky News. “Offshore processing of asylum seekers has been the cornerstone of the Australian government’s refugee policy for years,” she added.

The Times’s, Matt Dathan agreed that Patel “hopes to emulate the approach taken by Australia”. After she entered the Home Office in 2019, officials were exploring measures to combat dangerous Channel crossings and “were told to engage in ‘blue-sky thinking’”, he said.

“Various destinations have been floated and dismissed as unviable or rejected by the host country,” added Dathan. This has included Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, Albania and Ghana, as well as Gibraltar and the Isle of Wight. “But Rwanda was always the most promising country with which to do a deal.”

As per the proposal, Rwanda would assume accountability for the individuals who traveled over 4,000 miles, subject them to an asylum procedure, and provide them with permanent housing in Rwanda if they emerged victorious.

Migrants would be “entitled to full protection under Rwandan law, equal access to employment, and enrolment in healthcare and social care services,” according to the Rwandan government.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Grant Shapps, Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy arrive to attend the weekly cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 10 Downing Street on November 1, 2022 (Photo by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street)
Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Grant Shapps, Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy arrive to attend the weekly cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 10 Downing Street on November 1, 2022 (Photo by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street)

Backlogs, Boats and a Row of Ministers: The Urgency of Management

After becoming prime minister in October last year, current premier Rishi Sunak made “stopping the boats” one of his top five priorities. In the past couple of years, Britain has spent more than 3 billion pounds a year on dealing with asylum applications, with the cost of housing migrants in hotels and other accommodation while their claims are processed running at about 6 million pounds a day. Sending each asylum seeker to the African country would cost on average 169,000 pounds ($213,450), the government has said initially.

According to government figures in August, the backlog of asylum applications waiting for an initial decision hit a record high of more than 134,000, or 175,457 once dependents were included. Sunak had promised to clear this.

Illegal Migrants on the English Channel (Photo: Sandor Csudai)
Illegal Migrants on the English Channel (Photo: Sandor Csudai)

Quo vadis?

According to sources, the UK and Rwanda are still committed to their contentious agreement on the deportation of migrants, despite rumors that the agreement’s support in Kigali had soured due to the ongoing delays. Although Westminster has already given the Rwandan government over £140 million, no one has yet been dispatched to the nation in east Africa. Following legal challenges, the first flight, which was supposed to take place in June 2022, was canceled.

The Supreme Court declared the policy unconstitutional in December 2023, citing the possibility that asylum seekers sent there might be repatriated in violation of UK and international human rights legislation. Rishi Sunak, though, has emphasized that the policy will proceed.

The United Kingdom’s upper house of parliament then voted this January to delay Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s controversial plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda. The vote by the unelected House of Lords on Monday came despite Sunak urging its members to back his plan, which he has characterised as the will of the people.

On February 12, 2024 lawmakers from the British Parliament’s cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights stated in a detailed report that the government’s legislation to revive its deportation plan is “not compatible with the UK’s international obligations”, as Rwanda is not guaranteed to be a safe country in practice.


This article is an edited and abridged version of a writing to be published in the next issue of Dutch magazine Epoque.



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