Refugee deal: UK, Rwanda have set a 'catastrophic precedent'

A general view of Rwanda's capital Kigali, March 26, 2014. [Reuters]

The UK’s plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda – even before their applications have been concluded – may have been halted just in time this time, but the government is still pushing forward with its controversial plans.

Thanks to the European Court of Human Rights, the first British deportation flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda was grounded at the last minute. The court stepped in at the last minute, so to speak, ordering that the asylum seekers in question could not be flown out of the country.

There was, the court found, a “real risk of irreversible harm” for the individuals in question. The persons concerned and activists had fought a legal battle against plans to deport the asylum seekers to Rwanda, some 6,500km away. However, the day before the first deportation flight was scheduled to take place, a British Court of Appeal rejected an emergency application to stop it and all hope was lost.

Even after the order came down from Strasbourg, the British government is determined to put its plan into action. The word in London is that preparations for the next flight are already underway. As far as PM Boris Johnson is concerned, this is simply a bumpy start to a hugely controversial mission: The PM hopes to ship “tens of thousands” of “illegal” entrants off to Rwanda.

In doing so, the asylum application process will be outsourced to the African continent and the UK will break its commitment to the protection of refugees as set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

What Johnson is so determined to achieve is something that certain European politicians have long dreamt of: To remove asylum seekers even before their applications have been processed and rejected. So-called third countries will take over the procedure and be responsible for accommodation and provisions.

In the case of Rwanda, the British government is quite prepared to throw money at the problem. Foreign Secretary Priti Patel and Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Vincent Biruti, did not sign the deal until they met in Kigali in April. The ‘payment’ for taking the refugees will be made in the form of development aid. Rwanda’s government, with enormous deficits in its state budget because of the coronavirus pandemic, is to receive around 144 million euros from London.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. [Reuters]

The so-called Economic Transformation and Integration Fund is to be used chiefly for secondary education, university and vocational training and to support young entrepreneurs’ start-ups in Rwanda’s up-and-coming tech scene.

In the UK as elsewhere, there is a rhetoric of legal breaches and inhuman cruelty in the context of preventing smuggling services and creating deterrents and is therefore intended to suggest to the citizens that the intention is to enforce order.

Foreign Secretary Patel eloquently announced plans to repair the migration and asylum system, left ‘broken’ by Brexit. The current situation, seen by the British as a “crisis of little boats”, certainly lent her ambitions wings: In 2021, more than 28,000 migrants and refugees reached the English coast, most of them in small dinghies.

But the United Kingdom is not the only country with a preference for drastic measures over more humane hosting measures and hence breaking the law. The Australian government has been following a policy of deterrence for years, intercepting refugees travelling by boat before they reach the mainland and interning them in camps on remote islands. With their illegal pushbacks on the European external borders, Greece, Croatia and Poland have also broken – and still are breaking – their promises under the Refugee Convention – a treaty on the protection of refugees that grew out of refugees’ experiences in the Second World War.

Will other European countries follow the British lead?

However, the outsourcing of the asylum procedure now has a precedent, which may be a death knell for the already watered-down convention and thus refugee protection in Europe. Denmark’s government, for instance, has long been seeking its own deal with Rwanda. The brainwave of the Danish integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye seems to have so impressed the government of Boris Johnson that London has beaten Copenhagen to it with the now active asylum deal.

But the Danes are also “making good progress”, Tesfaye informed representatives of all Danish parliamentary parties in May. The dialogue with Rwanda would, however, have to remain confidential, EU Refugee Commissioner Ylva Johansson having warned Copenhagen of “possible consequences for the Dublin cooperation” should the country actually go ahead with such a “counter-productive” and “selfish” plan. When, after the Council of Foreign Ministers in early June, Austria’s Foreign Minister indicated that the externalisation of asylum procedures was a possible option for his government, as long as other European states followed suit, it was met with no real criticism.

Rwanda’s authoritarian government, on the other hand, has its own agenda and is increasingly presenting itself as a reception country, even though the way it deals with the different groups of refugees and migrants is largely opaque. The country is already home to around 130,000 refugees, mainly from the neighbouring countries Burundi and Congo. Ninety per cent of them live in enormous, depressing camps, as is often the case in many countries of the African continent. Between 2014 and 2017, it is believed that several thousand Eritreans and Sudanese refugees were brought from Israel to Rwanda.

Migrants arrive into the Port of Dover onboard a Border Force vessel after being rescued while crossing the English Channel. [Reuters]

Hardly any of them are reportedly still in the country today. Rwanda has also taken in migrants and refugees evacuated from Libyan camps by UNHCR under the so-called “emergency transit mechanism” since 2019. These people live in the Gashora reception camp, some 60 km out of Kigali, where they await a promise from third countries to be resettled there.

For the people now being flown out and all those who will follow, it is still largely unclear what will happen with their asylum applications and what life is likely to hold for them in the long term. All they know is that even in the event of a successful asylum procedure, they will not be able to return to the UK. “Rwanda welcomes this partnership with the United Kingdom to receive asylum seekers and migrants and offer them legal channels to remain”, declared Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta.

For the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the gain in prestige is as important as the financial gain: He can depict himself as a central figure in the global migration process and will enjoy immunity in the future, particularly to British and, subsequently, perhaps also Danish criticism of his poor human rights record. Because, of course, refugees are not sent to autocratic countries with serious human rights breaches. Certainly, Johnson has already described Rwanda as one as the “safest countries” in the world.