London, United Kingdom – The British government has been accused of trading people like commodities after it unveiled a controversial plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way ticket 6,000km (3,700 miles) away to Rwanda.
In a speech on Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said anyone who has entered the United Kingdom irregularly since the start of the year “may” be relocated to the country in central-east Africa.
“Our compassion may be infinite but our capacity to help people is not,” he said in Kent, a county in the UK’s southeast and a hotspot for refugees and migrants who cross the English Channel and land on British soil.
Johnson said “thousands of refugees” could be transported during the years under the scheme, which, he argued, would “save countless lives” and clamp down on human smugglers.
Many disagreed, however. Rights groups and refugee organisations swiftly blasted what they called a “cruel”, “inhumane” and “neo-colonial” plan, and questioned both its cost to the British taxpayers and effect on migration.
“It’s truly shocking and inhumane,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty International UK.
“The plan is not going to decrease the number of refugees. It will inflict a huge amount of cruelty and fuel more dangerous refugee routes to be set up,” Valdez-Symonds told Al Jazeera.
People traded like ‘commodities’
According to the plan, the British government would screen asylum seekers after arriving and provide their personal information to the Rwandan officials before they are transported to Kigali. The Rwandan government would deal with the asylum process and, if they are successful, asylum seekers will settle in the country.
Some details are still a bit murky but all refugees arriving in the UK in boats will be sent to Rwanda. If their application is successful, they will not be given refugee status in the UK but will be granted asylum by Rwanda. Those unsuccessful could be deported back to their country of origin, or another country where they have a right to reside.
Refugees who flee to the UK from prosecution, civil war and torture have the right to claim refugee status under international agreements. However, they can only claim asylum in the UK on British soil.
Hence, if the proposal is implemented, those fleeing Iraq, Syria, Eritrea or Sudan will most likely be transported to Rwanda even before making an asylum claim – which would eventually lead to a drastic decline in asylum applications.
The proposal will come into an effect after the passage of a law that is currently being considered in Parliament that could criminalise any refugees entering the country without a valid visa. The legislation is expected to pass as Johnson’s party enjoys the parliamentary majority.
But Johnson expects his plan will be challenged in the court as he said there will be a “formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who for years have made it their business to thwart removals” during his speech.
‘Slamming the door’
Globally, only less than 1 percent of refugees around the world have access to safe, direct resettlement through the United Nations.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, an NGO providing support to migrants in detention, said the rest are forced to take their futures into their own hands and cross borders to seek asylum directly.
“When governments try to deter people seeking asylum, those people do not disappear into thin air. They are forced to take longer, more dangerous journeys to try and rebuild their lives,” Sankey told Al Jazeera.
“By slamming the door on people seeking asylum, this government is shirking their responsibilities and adding to the larger crisis,” she said.
The UN’s refugee agency also voiced opposition.
“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs.
The chief executive of Refugee Action, Tim Naor Hilton, accused the government of “offshoring its responsibilities onto Europe’s former colonies instead of doing our fair share to help some of the most vulnerable people on the planet”.
Others, meanwhile, criticised Rwanda’s human rights record.
“There is nothing ‘safe’ or ‘compassionate’ about Boris Johnson’s neo-colonial plan to send refugees to offshore camps in Rwanda, where the government tortures, intimidates and assassinates their political opponents and persecutes marginalised people,” Sankey said.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta said Rwanda is going to provide refugees “a dignified life with shelter, with skills for them to be able to socially and economically integrate into our society, or to have those skills for them to be able to integrate into their country of origin when they decide to go back to their countries”.
Record high crossings
The language Johnson used in his speech was quite familiar. Phrases such as “taking back control of British borders” or “single men” from the Middle East and African countries arriving in the UK were key parts of his appeal to pro-Brexit voters during the 2016 campaign, which he co-spearheaded.
However, despite Johnson’s promise to curb the English Channel crossings, the number of people arriving on British shores has increased drastically in recent years.
More than an estimated 28,000 migrants and refugees crossed in small boats from Europe to the UK last year, a more than threefold increase on the figure for 2020.
In November last year, 27 people died while trying to reach the UK when their boat sank in the worst disaster to occur on the Channel.
According to a recent poll conducted by Ipsos Mori, 60 percent of the British public is dissatisfied with the government’s migration policy.
Valdez-Symonds said Johnson was “more interested in headlines and political advantage than the impact of the plan for the refugees”.
The deal, which Home Secretary Priti Patel signed during a visit to Kigali on Thursday, came as more Ukrainian refugees keep arriving in the UK through various visa programmes that the government has rolled out in the wake of Russia’s invasion in February.
So far, more than 55,000 visas have been issued to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine and 16,400 of them arrived in the UK as of Monday.
Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, highlighted the contrast between the proposed policy and the attitude towards Ukrainian refugees.
“Most of us want people fleeing danger to be treated with dignity and respect – the UK public’s response to Ukraine has made that clear,” Gardner told Al Jazeera.
“But instead of welcoming those who need protection,” she said, the deal will be “deporting Black and brown people who have fled desperate circumstances thousands of miles away”.
Setting a trend
The UK is not the only country that has sought to outsource its asylum applications. Australia, which the British officials often mention as a source of inspiration for their plan, has been keeping asylum seekers arriving by boat in offshore detention centres in the Pacific islands.
The policy has been heavily criticised for causing “immeasurable suffering” for dozens of asylum seekers who faced severe abuse and inhumane treatment in substandard conditions and end up dying by suicide.
Israel also struck secret deals in 2013 with Rwanda and Uganda to transfer asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. The arrangement fell through when the refugees – who had their documents taken away and were offered no protection – escaped Rwanda to embark on a dangerous journey to Europe, a study by the University of Oxford revealed in 2018.
Denmark’s parliament also passed a law in June last year that would allow it to relocate asylum seekers to third countries outside Europe, despite widespread criticism by the European Union, United Nations and rights groups.
Johnson said the deal will become “a new international standard” in handling migration.
But Amnesty’s Valdez-Symonds warned: “The plan could set a dangerous trend for other Western countries to adopt their offshore asylum schemes.”