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  • Sujena Soumyanath

The UK-Rwanda Asylum Plan: a Breaking Point in the Refugee Crisis

After escaping war torn countries, traversing through Europe and crossing the English Channel on flimsy life boats in hopes of a better life, refugees from across the world are attempting suicide upon finally arriving in Britain. The reason? A recent agreement announced by the British government stating that anyone who had arrived illegally to the country since January 1, 2022 could be deported to Rwanda.

The agreement, reached by the British Home Office and the Rwandan government in April, seeks to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, process their requests there, and, if they are approved, settle them in Rwanda. If their claim is rejected, refugees will be deported to their home country or a third country willing to receive them.

According to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, the deportation scheme’s purpose is to “overhaul the broken asylum system and break the evil people smugglers’ business model.” Although directly meant to address migration to the UK, the plan is enticing for Rwanda as well. The initial 120 million pounds the UK has offered the country will support its “economic transformation and integration”; aiding in much needed development.

For the UK, a potential deterrent to human smuggling - which delivers thousands of refugees to the country’s doors illegally - couldn’t come at a better time. A Union representing Border Force workers reported that 60,000 people are projected to cross the English channel in small boats this year, a number that has more than doubled since 2021.

Undocumented immigrants arriving to the UK by boats has been a longstanding issue for the British government. Since 2018, the number of people making this perilous journey has been steadily increasing, with several cases of sunken boats and mass deaths occurring along the way. In 2021, the Home Office reported that 75% of people entering the UK on boats were 18 to 39 year old men and 12% were children under the age of 18. The most common countries of origin were Iran, Iraq, Eritrea and Syria.

In response to the influx of refugees and asylum seekers, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has adopted a tough stance on illegal immigration, stating that “our compassion may be infinite but our capacity to help is not.” At a time when 56% of the British public views migrants crossing the English channel negatively, the Rwanda deportation scheme is only one part of a broad strategy to deter these types of irregular migration methods.

However, the British government is wary of appearing insensitive to the plight of migrants fleeing unsafe countries, so the Home Office has adopted a distinct anti-smuggling rhetoric to justify its policies: making it clear that the immigration crackdown aims to punish the smugglers “abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard” and not the refugees crossing themselves.

Yet, despite its seemingly heroic motives, the Rwanda plan has been met with international outcry for its “cruel and inhumane” repercussions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the plan contradicted the Refugee Convention of 1951, and the Human Rights Watch voiced similar concerns about the ethicality of the plan. Even within the UK, the plan has been heavily criticized, with mass opposition protests erupting around the country. High profile citizens such as former Prime Minister Theresa May, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles of the British royal family have all voiced serious concerns about deporting migrants to Rwanda.

Chief among the naysayers’ concerns is the fate of refugees once they reach Rwanda. Prime Minister Johnson has promised that “Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world” and is “globally recognized for its record and welcoming and integrating migrants,” but experts point to a long history of human rights abuses shadowing the country’s reputation.

For example, the Human Rights Watch stated that torture and arbitrary detention often occur in Rwanda. Additionally, in 2021, Rwandan authorities rounded up 9 transgender and homosexual individuals and held them in unsanitary detention centers, accusing them of “not representing Rwandan values.” The UK Foreign Office reports that this kind of abuse and discrimination towards LGBTQ+ individuals is common, and even occurs at the hands of local authorities.

Human rights organizations are also concerned about the mental health of refugees receiving the news of possible deportation. “I tried to take my life the day before yesterday,” said one Afghan man in an interview with The Independent. The asylum seeker, who had arrived in the UK as a child in 2008, said he would “rather die” than be deported to Rwanda.

Similar reports have surfaced of other refugees experiencing suicidal thoughts and urges to self harm in response to the policy. In one British detention center, 17 asylum seekers staged a hunger strike after hearing they were on the first deportation flight, set to leave on June 14 to Rwanda.

Fortunately for the asylum seekers, the flight never ended up leaving the ground. Charities and other organizations proposed a series of legal challenges to cancel the flight and keep the initial 113 individuals booked for deportation from reaching Rwanda. After the massive legal pushback, only 7 asylum seekers were left to board the flight, which is when the European Court of Human Rights intervened, ruling that the British legal proceedings for the 7 individuals had not concluded, and therefore they could not be deported from the country. With no passengers left, the highly anticipated flight never took off.

Despite this setback for the initial flight, Secretary Patel announced on June 14 that the UK remained steadfast in moving forward with the project. In fact, the government had foreseen legal challenges to the plan since its very announcement, and the June flight cancellation was only a delay. The real decision about the future of the project will come in July, when the High Court will conduct a full judicial review of the entire policy.

In the meantime, the chances of the ambitious scheme rolling out are dwindling. Though seemingly unprecedented, countries have adopted similar programs before, all with dismal results. From 2014 to 2017, Israel deported thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. Almost immediately, nearly all of the migrants left the country, turning to human-smuggling routes to escape to Europe. When Israeli reporters tracked down one of the few men still in Rwanda, he was found living on the streets and unable to work.

Even earlier, in 2001, Australia began sending refugees to offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru. Since then, 13 of the detained refugees have died from violence, suicide and lack of medical care, and the centers have been widely criticized for their poor conditions.

The UK has pushed the narrative that the Rwanda deportation scheme is in the best interest of refugees, as it safeguards them from human smugglers who will be deterred by the new plan. Historical precedent and the environment awaiting them in Rwanda, however, seem to tell a different story about the fate of those sent there.

Under the guise of an innovative solution, what the Rwanda scheme really speaks to is a global exhaustion with the refugee crisis. The UK has reached a breaking point, and fear and deterrence are now the sole focus of the country’s immigration policy. The individual lives of refugees have taken yet another backseat in the country’s list of priorities.

Balancing national and humanitarian interests is no easy task, and the Rwanda deportation scheme can certainly be applauded for its initiative and innovation. Yet, as the UK moves forward, Prime Minister Johnson’s statement that Britain’s compassion is infinite becomes harder to prove.

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