The United Kingdom has signed a deal to send male asylum seekers who cross the English Channel in small boats to Rwanda while their claims are processed in the UK.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan authorities signed the 120 million pound ($158m) agreement for a “migration and economic development partnership” in Kigali, Rwanda.
“There is a global responsibility to prioritise the safety and well-being of migrants, and Rwanda welcomes this partnership with the United Kingdom to host asylum seekers and migrants, and offer them legal pathways to residence.
This is about ensuring that people are protected, respected, and empowered to further their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they choose,” said Rwanda’s the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Dr. Vincent Biruta.
Some asylum seekers who arrive in the UK on small boats across the Channel will be given a one-way ticket to Rwanda, under new government plans.
The cost would be funded by UK taxpayers. The UK ministers face significant legal hurdles and substantial costs.
Crossing the English Channel in small boats will also be made a crime, and those who are allowed to stay will have to live in strictly-controlled camp-like environments while their cases are considered, the paper said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is under renewed pressure after being fined by police for breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules at a number of parties in his office, is also set to announce new plans to tackle people-smuggling gangs and increase UK operations in the Channel.
Critics say Johnson is trying to divert attention from his own behaviour amid calls for his resignation over the repeated lockdown breaches.
Last year, more than 28,000 people crossed from Europe to the UK, many in small dinghies.
Refugee organisations have criticised the plans as cruel and urged a rethink.
Labour said the plan was “unworkable, unethical and extortionate” – the Lib Dems said it would be expensive and ineffective.
Precise details of the plan are yet to be confirmed, but so far details indicate that the scheme would be restricted to mostly single men the British authorities believe are inadmissible.
Under the proposal, Rwanda would take responsibility for them, put them through an asylum process, and at the end of that process, if they are successful, they will have long-term accommodation there.
The Rwandan government said migrants will be “entitled to full protection under Rwandan law, equal access to employment, and enrolment in healthcare and social care services”.
The UK Home Office believes existing asylum law will be enough to implement the plan, but questions remain about the legality of the scheme.
The deal will see Rwanda, which is part of the Commonwealth, given an initial £120m as part of a trial, but opponents say the annual cost of the full scheme would be far higher.
In a speech in Kent, Mr Johnson will argue that action is needed to stop “vile people smugglers” turning the ocean into a “watery graveyard”.
Last year, 28,526 people are known to have crossed the English Channel in small boats, up from 8,404 in 2020.
Around 600 people made the crossing on Wednesday, and Mr Johnson will say the figure could reach 1,000 a day within weeks.
“We cannot sustain a parallel illegal system,” he will say. “Our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not.”
The prime minister will also announce plans to hand operational control of the Channel to the navy, break the business model of people-smuggling gangs, and deter people from risking the crossing.
The measures are part of the government’s long-term plan to “take back control of illegal immigration” after Brexit, Mr Johnson will say.
While the number of people crossing the Channel in boats has increased, last year saw fewer people using other routes – such as by lorry – in part because of increased security at the Port of Calais.
Law yet to be approved
The UK government’s Nationality and Borders Bill includes a provision to create offshore immigration processing centres for asylum seekers.
The bill is making its way through Parliament, but with the parliamentary session expected to end within weeks, time is running out to pass it into law.
MPs are currently on a break, but when they return, they are due to review a series of amendments, including one about powers to offshore asylum claims.
The government has suffered a series of defeats in the House of Lords over the bill, which has come in for criticism and sparked protests.
Labour and the SNP have opposed offshoring asylum claims, and the UN’s high commissioner for refugees said the practice “would be a breach of the UK’s international obligations”.
The plan to process asylum seekers abroad was first reported by the Times newspaper last year.
The newspaper said the Home Office had discussed the proposals with their counterparts in Denmark, which has passed legislation allowing it to relocate asylum seekers to countries outside Europe.
Human rights campaigners have been critical of the plan around its impact on the human rights of refugees, the cost of the scheme and questioned whether it will even achieve its aims.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the proposal would not “address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK”.
He said the scheme would “only lead to more human suffering, chaos and at huge expense of an estimated £1.4bn a year”.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director, described the plan as “shockingly ill-conceived idea” which will inflict further suffering and waste “huge amounts” of public money.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said the plan was “a pretty desperate attempt by the PM to distract from his own lawbreaking” over Covid lockdown rules.
She added that “we all want to see an end to the illegal crossings” of the Channel but Labour advocate “boring measures” such as making it more difficult for smugglers to advertise their services online.
Alistair Carmichael, home affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said the UK had a proud history of providing sanctuary to those in need.
“Thousands of families are opening their homes to refugees, but this Conservative Government is slamming the door in their face,” he said.
Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, described the idea of sending “vulnerable people” to Rwanda as “absolutely chilling”, adding: “This is not the mark of a civilised society. It’s evil.”