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Refugees welcome

Why the UK government should rethink its plan to send asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda

The UK and Rwanda have signed an agreement for the UK to deport people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda.

Senior Digital Communications Officer, International Rescue Committee UK

In April the UK and Rwanda signed an agreement for the UK to deport people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda in April. 

On 14th June, the first people seeking asylum in the UK were due to be deported to Rwanda. But after a last-minute ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, the Home Office called off the flight.

Despite this, the Government is intent on proceeding with this plan. Here’s everything you need to know about the scheme, and why the UK should rethink its plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. 

How does the Rwanda scheme work?

Under the new scheme, once refugees have been sent to Rwanda, they will be processed under Rwanda’s legal system and will not be able to return to the UK.  

The scheme has been widely criticised as a threat to the welfare of vulnerable people who arrive in the UK, hoping to find safety. MPs from all parties, charities and human rights groups have spoken out against the policy. 

The agreement was signed two weeks before the Nationality and Borders Act was passed. The new two-tier system of refugee protection penalises people who seek safety in Britain, based on their mode of arrival. 

Everyone has the right to seek asylum and we know that when welcomed, refugees offer huge contributions to their new communities. The UK Government should be protecting and welcoming refugees, not sending them miles away. 

Why is the UK Government sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and who does it apply to?

The UK Government has said that the new policy aims to tackle and deter the business model of people smuggling. Guidance from the Home Office states, ‘The Partnership will see those travelling to the UK through illegal, dangerous, or unnecessary methods considered for relocation to Rwanda, where they will have their asylum claim processed.’ This means that some people will be declared inadmissible to the asylum system based on their mode of arrival. While we know unaccompanied children are to be excluded from the policy, there is limited information on how the Government will decide which asylum seekers to send to Rwanda.

However, all asylum seekers have the right to apply for protection in the UK under the Refugee Convention, of which Britain is a signatory. Moreover, based on Home Office data, we know that a clear majority of people crossing the Channel are granted refugee protection. This means that people arriving are already extremely vulnerable and should not be punished for seeking asylum.

Five reasons the UK Government should rethink its plan to send asylum seekers and refugees from the UK to Rwanda

1. It’s not how we should treat refugees

The response to the recent crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan has made it clear that the British public wants to do more to help people fleeing conflicts. Instead, the Government is creating laws and policies that treat vulnerable people like criminals. 

The majority of people seeking asylum have faced multiple traumas in their home countries and along their journey. Sending them miles away will put their mental health and well-being at risk, and the long-term effects could be severe. Instead, new arrivals should be offered dignified reception support, including access to legal representation and tailored medical services.

2. It breaches international obligations 

Seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has described the agreement as ‘incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Convention.’ The 1951 Refugee Convention sets out refugees’ rights and the obligations of states to protect them. The UK is a signatory of the Convention, which allows people to seek asylum in any country they choose. The Convention prohibits penalisation on account of irregular entry to a country, meaning that the way a person travels to the UK should not affect their asylum claim.

Asylum seekers in the UK and elsewhere face rigorous application processes before they are given refugee status. Sending asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed undermines this international law. 

3. The UK Government should share responsibility for protecting refugees and aslyum seekers

With the grim milestone of over 100 million displaced people worldwide, it is more important than ever that the UK shares responsibility for protecting refugees. It is vital to remember that the vast majority of refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring humanitarian crises and low and middle-income countries, often already enduring high rates of poverty and domestic challenges.

East Africa alone already hosts almost 5 million refugees, but resources are very stretched. For instance, the World Food Programme reports that funding shortfalls mean almost 70 percent of refugees do not receive full food rations. As a leading global economy, the UK Government must do more to contribute to global refugee protection and share responsibility.  

4. Evidence shows it is likely to be ineffective 

We already know from the experience of other countries that similar policies haven’t worked. For instance, Australia established offshore processing centres for asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. This came at a severe human cost, and arrivals by boat and deaths at sea continued. When Israel relocated refugees and asylum seekers to countries in Africa, this resulted in people making dangerous journeys back to Europe. 

Refugees that seek safety in the UK often do so because they have family here or because they speak the language. The most effective way to tackle dangerous journeys would be to expand safe and legal routes. For example, by making it easier for families to reunite and increasing resettlement places.

5. It’s expensive

The UK Government's new plan to send refugees from the UK to Rwanda is costly. The UK has promised Rwanda an initial £120m as part of an “economic transformation and integration fund”, but the UK will be paying additional operation costs as well. Refugee Council predicts British taxpayers will be paying up £1.4 billion a year.

Instead, the Government should invest in and resource our asylum system so that it can process applications effectively. We also know from IRC’s experience globally, that once refugees are given a chance to contribute to their new communities, the investment can pay back dividends. Research from the International Rescue Committee has found that closing earnings and employment gaps for refugee men and women in Turkey, Uganda, Lebanon, Jordan, Germany, and the U.S. alone could boost global GDP by $53 billion. We also know that when refugees start businesses they employ locals, pay taxes and generate wealth.

The current rules in the UK mean that most people seeking asylum are not able to find employment until their refugee status is granted. They are frozen out of work and prevented from providing for themselves and their families, trapping them in poverty. We know that 94% of asylum seekers want to work. If the ban on employment for asylum seekers were lifted, it is estimated that the UK economy could gain £211.3 million per year.

The IRC is part of the #LiftTheBan coalition, which is calling on the UK Government to allow people seeking asylum to work. By allowing this, asylum seekers are able to contribute to the UK’s economy and will be able to support themselves much sooner. 

The IRC is calling for a rethink

The IRC is deeply concerned for the welfare of the vulnerable people who arrive on the UK’s shores seeking safety and protection. We urge the UK Government to fundamentally rethink its approach, uphold the right to seek asylum, and expand safe routes for refugees.

The Government must uphold its commitments to the Refugee Convention and deliver a fair and effective system of protection for everyone.