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The Rwanda flight is a moment of national shame


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A few poor souls are bound for removal to Rwanda today. Whether or not the flight departs on schedule, this is a moment of national shame. One of the richest countries in the world, hosting one of the lowest numbers of refugees internationally, has paid a developing country to take a handful of genuine refugees off our hands. 

The government simultaneously argues that Rwanda is a beacon of human rights and economic prosperity and that removing a few refugees there will be so awful for them that it will deter others from following in their footsteps. It is a classic example of Johnsonian “cakeism”, of having it both ways. The reality is that an unfortunate few are being punished in order to discourage the others.

The British record of forcibly relocating the poor and people of colour around the world is hardly a glorious one. Continuing this legacy into the 21st century is immoral, particularly when those affected are refugees. The fact that we have so far welcomed 70,000 refugees from Ukraine and 114,000 from Hong Kong on uncapped schemes at the same time as attempting to remove a few hundred to Rwanda blows out of the water the idea that this policy is about our inability to integrate and welcome newcomers.

Those given notices of removal to Rwanda came from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and other countries. The vast majority were genuine refugees who would have won their asylum claims had they been decided here in the United Kingdom. The latest government statistics show that three out of four initial Home Office asylum decisions are grants of asylum. Success rates are even higher for some nationalities: 98% for Syrians, 91% for Afghans and 88% for Iranians. A significant proportion of those rejected go on to secure asylum from a judge — half of all asylum appeals ultimately succeed.

None of those removed to Rwanda have any connection to that country. The Memorandum of Understanding between the United Kingdom and Rwanda makes clear that they will need to apply for asylum on arrival. If Rwanda grants them asylum, they will be given refugee status there. Their prospects for meaningfully rebuilding their lives in a strange country and culture, with no existing community and poor economic prospects, are surely very low. 

If Rwanda refuses their asylum applications — which may well be the case given that even the Home Office country information suggests there are no relevant interpreters, no asylum lawyers and no experience of dealing with claims from the relevant countries — then Rwanda will be responsible for sending them back to their home countries. The reality is that they will probably move on and try to head back to Europe, placing themselves in the hands of people smugglers and traffickers.

Whether the policy is lawful is yet to be decided. The court decisions yesterday were refusals of interim relief. The judges accepted that the Rwanda plan raises meaty legal issues around compatibility with the Refugee Convention and human rights laws but held that those facing removal could wait in Rwanda rather than the UK to find out whether their case succeeds. If it does succeed, they can be brought back.

But full hearings will take weeks. Whoever loses is likely to appeal, and the appeals may take weeks or months to resolve. Many of us were surprised that the “balance of convenience” — the critical test for a grant of interim relief — was held to favour the government.

The legal powers deployed for this set of removals are set out in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004. The relevant parts of the much-vaunted Nationality and Borders Act 2022 do not come into force until 28 June 2022. Under the 2004 legislation, the Home Secretary has to certify that Rwanda will not send any returnees “to another State otherwise than in accordance with the Refugee Convention”. It is hard to see how this criterion can be satisfied given the reported deficiencies in the rudimentary Rwandan asylum system.

It is not as if there were no alternative, as Priti Patel and her outriders sometimes claim. 

One is simply to get on with it. The United Kingdom receives far fewer asylum applications than France or Germany, for example. We can cope. 

If the point is to deter dangerous journeys, the government could get serious about rejoining the Dublin asylum system operated by the European Union, which we flounced out of with the hard Brexit pursued by the present government. Non-EU countries like Switzerland and Norway participate in the system and transfer out thousands of refugees back to their points of entry into the European Union every year.

Our asylum system has real problems which have deteriorated badly on Priti Patel’s watch as Home Secretary. Delays in the system have more than tripled since she took over and the backlog of undecided cases has grown tenfold from around 10,000 to over 100,000 in just five years. Most of those waiting in interminable limbo are genuine refugees who will ultimately be allowed to stay. In the meantime, they are not allowed to work, given destitution-level support, and forced to live in camps or poor-quality accommodation. It is terrible for them and terrible for us as well, given that they will be long-term members of our society.

Meanwhile, almost none of those few asylum seekers whose cases are rejected are actually removed. Government statistics revealed there were just 113 enforced asylum removals in total in the whole of 2021. The government should focus on running an effective asylum system rather than pursuing its cruel Rwanda vanity project.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.


2 Responses

  1. Some good points made but it is difficult to see the logic of objecting to asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda whilst advocating re-joining the Dublin system and sending them to Greece (or similar). Agreed we are paying Rwanda to take them off our hands but the EU pays Turks and Libyans to stop them getting to Europe in the first place. The shame needs to be shared out.