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Why the UK-Rwanda Asylum Deal Risks Harming Global Standards

Written by
Heaven Crawley, United Nations University Centre for Policy Research
Date of Publication:
23 April 2022

Professor Heaven Crawley reflects on the newly announced asylum partnership agreement between the UK and Rwanda and its implications for and ramifications on global standards on refugees and asylum-seekers.

On 14 April, while the British Parliament was on holiday for Easter, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that she had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Rwanda for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement.

This innocuous-sounding agreement belies a much more serious development. It means that anyone who claims asylum in the UK "irregularly" can be "relocated" to Rwanda for their claim to be processed.

And it is a one-way ticket.

Those found in need of international protection will be expected to remain in Rwanda and integrate into the local community. Given that increased border controls make it virtually impossible to claim asylum "regularly", the UK is effectively reneging on its obligations to provide protection to those who are forcibly displaced, currently around 82 million people globally.

The politics of asylum in the UK

The announcement comes hard on the heels of the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently in its final stages in Parliament, which makes sweeping changes to the UK asylum system. The stated aim of the Bill is to discourage people from entering the UK to seek asylum through irregular means and, in particular, to end irregular Channel crossings in small boats.

The number of people arriving across the Channel has increased dramatically over recent years. According to the Home Office, there were 28,526 people detected arriving on small boats in 2021 and this number looks set to rise in 2022. This compares with 8,466 in 2020, 1,843 in 2019 and 299 in 2018. The rise coincides with the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, which also meant its withdrawal from the Dublin Convention that enables EU Member States to return asylum-seekers to a safe "third country", in this case, France. Having argued that Brexit would allow the UK to "take back control of our borders", the opposite has in fact proved to be the case.

Ironically, the deal also comes just a few short weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and forced displacement of nearly 5 million Ukrainian refugees, an event which appeared, albeit briefly, to have softened British attitudes to refugees, much as the body of Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, did in 2015.

So what is wrong with the deal?

The UK's deal with Rwanda has been met with widespread criticism, including from the UN Refugee Agency, which has urged both countries to re-think the scheme. There are four main concerns.

First, the MoU claims to "strengthen shared international commitments on the protection of refugees and migrants" but it actually does exactly the opposite. 85 per cent of all refugees are already hosted by the Global South and more than a quarter live in the world's poorest countries. Even within Europe, the UK only ranks 7th in terms of the absolute number of people to whom it gives protection. Pushing the relatively small number of refugees arriving in the UK to countries like Rwanda is hardly sharing responsibility. It also ignores the fact that most of those arriving across the Channel in small boats are recognized as refugees. The problem is not people "working the system" but rather a lack of opportunities to enter the UK legally.

Second, the MoU states that "Rwanda has willingly been hosting and giving shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees, offering adequate systems of refugee protection". Certainly it is true that Rwanda is home to tens of thousands of refugees, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is also true that Rwanda is one of ten countries that have signed up to the Common Refugee Response Framework. But there are huge gaps between policy and practice. Despite Rwanda's progressive legislation and ambitious vision of self-reliance, in practice most refugees remain highly dependent on humanitarian assistance and access to rights and opportunities has been slow to materialize.

I have seen this in my own research.

I first travelled to Rwanda in 2018 as part of a project working in three refugee camps – Nyabiheke, Gihembe and Kigeme – that aimed to improve access to energy for Congolese refugees unable to access electricity to power their homes or cook their food. I was struck by the beauty of the country but also the lack of development outside of the capital Kigali.

Rwanda is a tiny country – just 26,338 square kilometers in total – and its economic development over the past ten years has been remarkable. But Rwanda's image as the 'poster child' of African development and refugee protection belies a much more complicated story of poverty and inequality. Food insecurity in Rwanda is of serious concern, with nearly 60 per cent of the population either food insecure or close to being so at the time of my visit. Poverty in five of the six districts hosting refugees is higher than the national average, with two districts being among the poorest in the country. Refugees suffer from the same development constraints as host communities – limited employment opportunities, poor quality education and a dependence on low-income agriculture for livelihood. In addition, many refugees lack the social or business networks or other resources they might need to access or create employment. While refugees in Rwanda have the right to work, in practice it is difficult for them to move around because of bureaucracy as well as the remote location of some camps. Many of the refugees we spoke to told us that they relied upon remittances from family members living in other countries to supplement their incomes. It is worth remembering that Congolese refugees have much in common with the local community – including a shared language, Kinyarwanda. That will not be the case for Afghans, Eritreans, Iraqis, Syrians or others who are sent there.

Thirdly, Priti Patel claims that the plans will help to put an end to trafficking and the "deeply unfair" situation that "advantages those with the means to pay people traffickers over vulnerable people who cannot". But this claim flies against all the evidence. Research with refugees has repeatedly shown that the "business model" the UK Government is so keen to break is itself a product of UK and wider EU policymaking. And schemes like the one being proposed simply exacerbate this problem. Like the UK, Israel tried sending refugees to Rwanda and it did not work. Most of those transferred did not remain in Rwanda. With no documentation and an ambiguous position vis-a-vis the local authorities, they felt unsafe and vulnerable to exploitation. Many decided to take their chances and travel to Europe via Sudan, Libya, and across the Mediterranean. We met some of them during our own research. For smugglers, the Israeli deal created a new market. The UK's deal with Rwanda is likely to do exactly the same.

Finally, the underlying assumption behind the plan is that would-be asylum-seekers will be sufficiently put off by the idea of being sent to Rwanda that they will decide not to cross the Channel in the first place. The British Government has long believed in the power of deterring refugees and other migrants through the creation of a "hostile environment". But evidence going back more than a decade shows that the relationship between policymaking and decision-making is shaky at best. Refugees rarely have detailed knowledge or understanding of asylum procedures. This is confirmed by the Home Office's own research. While refugees in the UK have expressed alarm at the plan, this does not mean that the scheme will deter those who have yet to make the journey and who may perceive the alternatives to be even worse.

The need for safe and legal routes

Priti Patel is right about one thing. There is an urgent need for safe and legal routes that enable people to better their lives, flee oppression, persecution, or conflict and enjoy new opportunities.

It is clear that the absence or slow realization of safe and legal access to protection – most notably through resettlement, family reunification and humanitarian visas – pushes people into taking increasingly risky and dangerous routes and increases demand for smugglers and traffickers who can facilitate the journey. But there are other ways to create safe and legal migration routes that do not involve sending people 7,000 km for their asylum claims to be processed, most likely at a huge expense.

Priti Patel has said that she wants the UK's deal with Rwanda to set "a new international standard" and a "model for other countries".

Let's hope not, as the deal goes against the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which serves as the reference point for refugee rights around the world. It also undermines the Global Compact on Refugees, the framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing that the UK signed up to in 2018. Countries need to step up to their international obligations towards refugees, not out of them.