The Real Implications of the UK – Rwanda Refugee deal and how it will effect Eritreans

28 April 2022

Britain’s new policy proposal to send asylum seekers who have not arrived by legal routes to Rwanda in East Africa is unethical and probably illegal under international humanitarian law. 

Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel recently signed a deal to remove to Rwanda asylum-seekers arriving in Britain by unauthorised routes (including across the English Channel). They would not be allowed to have their cases heard in the UK, but their asylum applications would be processed “offshore”. The UK government has previously tried to make arrangements to send such claimants to Romania and even to the Isle of Man for processing, but, unable to get permission from these countries, it has finally secured the agreement by bribing the Rwandan government, whose human rights record is hardly commendable.

Britain is in effect following the example of Australia which has sent refugees to the Island of Nauru. Australia’s ultra-tough policy of offshore processing centres has resulted in manifestly inhumane treatment, many deaths and suicides.

A new Nationality and Borders Bill, still under debate in the UK parliament, has yet to be approved by the House of Lords, which has removed or modified various contentious clauses which are regarded as breaking principles of international law. At present, the House of Commons (with its huge Conservative party majority) has approved these clauses, but has not been able to persuade members of the Lords to do so.

Although Rwanda has never admitted this, it had a similar agreement with the government of Israel. As a result, between 2013 and 2018, Israel coerced close to 3,000 Eritreans to leave for Rwanda or else face prolonged detention in Israel. Prior to sending Eritrean refugees to Rwanda, deceptively, Israel distributed written promises in Tigrinya (the Eritrean language) for legal status and legal opportunities for work and running businesses in the “third country” (Rwanda).

However, hundreds of testimonies collected by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, and other organisations during the years made it clear that the Eritrean refugees were let into the country illegally, without passing through immigration or border control. It was also impossible for Eritreans to remain in Rwanda, and they were all forced to continue their journey to Uganda or other destinations by the same government agent who picked them up from Kigali International Airport.

Although we do not know the details of the agreement between Rwanda and Israel, since it was a secret agreement, the hundreds of testimonies gathered prove that the promises were not met. The Eritreans who left Israel for Rwanda did not receive legal status, their safety was in no way protected and they were forcibly deported directly.

If Rwanda failed to grant protection to those who arrived from Israel, it is very unlikely that it would protect refugees arriving from the UK.

Eritrean asylum seekers can find no legal routes to the UK in order to claim sanctuary, and so are very likely, under this new process, to be removed to Rwanda, where there are little safeguards to stop them from being forcibly returned to huge danger in Eritrea.

Shamelessly and irresponsibly, such deals for money by rich countries means refugees become a source of income for the government of Rwanda and other African states that have no interest in the welfare, safety and protection of those who flee persecution in their own countries and take a great risk to seek for asylum.

The cost of flying such refugees/migrants to Rwanda may run into billions of pounds. But the legality of such action is even more questionable. This new deportation policy discriminates between asylum seekers on the basis of how (by what route) they arrive in the country, while international law requires states to consider a person’s claim to refugee status on the basis of the threat to life and the safety of each person.

Indeed, the global authority on asylum seekers and refugees, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has expressed major concerns about the UK’s plans, which it strongly opposes. Gillian Triggs, the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner, said:

“UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards. Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations, and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.”

The UNHCR has urged both Britain and Rwanda to re-think the plans. It warned that, instead of deterring refugees from resorting to perilous journeys, these offshore processing arrangements would magnify risks, causing refugees to seek other dangerous routes.

Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) echoes the concerns and warnings of UNHCR. 

HRCE believes that the UK’s policy proposals are contrary to international law as defined in such treaties as the UN Refugee Convention.

These proposals should not be implemented and, if enacted, should be challenged in the British courts of law to the highest level.

The UK has an obligation to ensure access to asylum for all those seeking protection. Each case must be considered on its merits in the country where the application is made, regardless of the method or route followed to reach that country. 

Instead, the UK is adopting arrangements that abdicate responsibility to others and thus threaten the international refugee protection regime.

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)

+44 7958 005 637

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