The UK wants to send refugees to Rwanda. Is that legal?

Felly Kimenyi
Burhan Almerdas and his wife, Sanaa Almerdas, in their cafe in Kigali, Rwanda. The couple fled war-torn Yemen and were granted refugee status in Rwanda in 2019.
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Worried that Britain’s political asylum system cannot cope with the number of people seeking protection, Boris Johnson’s government has taken an unusual and highly controversial route.

London has done a deal with Rwanda, whereby asylum-seekers would be sent to the East African country, and Rwandan officials would decide whether they deserve refugee status. If granted refugee status, they could stay in Rwanda but never go to the United Kingdom.

Why We Wrote This

Can a government outsource its duty of care for asylum-seekers? Britain is trying, and Rwanda is offering – for a price – to process and settle refugees applying for British protection.

It is not clear whether this is legal: Britain has signed refugee protection conventions that oblige London to allow migrants to make their case for protection. It is not clear whether it is workable: Over 28,000 people arrived in Britain illegally by boat last year. Does Rwanda have the resources to process, house, and employ that many people every year?

And it’s not clear that it would be safe for the refugees; just last year the British ambassador for human rights regretted that its government had refused to carry out “credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.”

Despite such doubts, Britain is not the only country taking this path. Denmark too is negotiating with Rwanda to outsource its migrant problem, rather than deal with it at home.

When the U.K. government last month announced a deal to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement, officials said the extreme measure was intended to “fix the broken asylum system.”

It may not get the chance. The plan has triggered widespread condemnation in Britain, with critics branding it inhuman and unworkable, and it is already facing legal challenges.

More than 4,000 miles away, many citizens in Rwanda also object. But their complaints spring from a different perspective: By taking in and housing migrants, the government would be prioritizing the newcomers over Rwandans.

Why We Wrote This

Can a government outsource its duty of care for asylum-seekers? Britain is trying, and Rwanda is offering – for a price – to process and settle refugees applying for British protection.

The reactions in both the United Kingdom and Rwanda go to the heart of some of the quandaries presented by the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill. The new policy also underscores the contrast between the way migrants from Europe are welcomed to Britain and the way those from Africa and the Middle East – who will make up the majority affected by the bill – are treated.

More than 50,000 Ukrainians have been offered humanitarian visas and free housing in Britain over the past three months.

Even on a continent grappling with a backlash against surging migrant numbers in recent years, the new U.K. policy stands out for its hard-line stance. 

Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog, has branded the plan “the very height of irresponsibility” that “shows how far from humanity and reality the government is.”

“What they’re doing is unprecedented in so-called Western democracies,” says Paul O’Connor, a civil servant with the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has brought a case against the U.K. government. “This is being driven entirely by racism. It’s not a rational response to asylum and immigration policy.” 

Despite the criticisms, the British government has moved fast to implement its policy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the government is notifying 50 individuals that they will be transferred to Rwanda by the end of May. On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Rwandan government said the country is preparing to accept the first batch of asylum seekers.  

Seeking jobs or protection?

The government says the new policy will deter those who make risky journeys to Britain, and put people smugglers out of business. Under the deal, those deemed to have arrived in the U.K. unlawfully, in small boats, or hidden in trucks, crossing the English Channel, for example, will be sent to Rwanda. There, Rwandan officials will hear their asylum claims.

Successful claimants would be given refugee status in the East African country. Britain will pay Rwanda $210 million to fund education, housing, skills training, and language lessons for them. The Rwandan government has promised they would be “entitled to full protection under Rwandan law, equal access to employment, and enrollment in healthcare and social care services.”

Those not granted asylum would be allowed to stay in Rwanda, although without refugee status, or given the option to claim protection in a different country, according to government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo.

Martial Trezzini/Keystone/AP
British Home Secretary Priti Patel (right) and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta walk together at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 19, 2022. Her plan to outsource the processing of refugees to Rwanda has sparked fierce debate.

U.K. Interior Minister Priti Patel has said that 90% of those entering the U.K. illegally are not genuine refugees, but rather single men seeking economic opportunities. But an analysis by the Refugee Council, a respected British charity, found last year that almost two-thirds of those who crossed the channel did qualify for refugee status in the U.K.

Britain’s Memorandum of Understanding with Rwanda, along with a similar deal that Denmark is negotiating with the government there, represents a major break with international norms established since the end of World War II.

Specifically, scholars say, the U.K. deal breaches the 1951 Refugee Convention, since it singles out for removal to Rwanda those migrants who have entered the U.K. illegally. The convention, recognizing that most refugees have no choice but to travel irregularly, prohibits governments from penalizing them for doing so.

A law passed last year in Denmark, paving the way for its current talks, “risks undermining the foundation of the international protection system for the world’s refugees,” the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, warned.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Who gets priority?

Nestled in emerald green hills in the center of the continent, Rwanda’s 13 million citizens already live in one of Africa’s most densely populated nations. 

Moses Muhoza, a builder in Kigali, feels that the pact casts Rwanda in a good light as a welcoming nation, but worries about being left behind. 

“It appears as though our leaders are caring more for other people at the expense of the citizens. Commodity prices have shot up, there is limited work, rent is expensive,” says Mr. Muhoza, who earns about $10 a day. “I feel that we [Rwandans] should be prioritized.”

The government says locals and refugees will all gain, since U.K. funding will create jobs, particularly in the tech sector, for both groups. “These people will not live in camps but within communities and benefits will go towards everyone – migrants and citizens,” says Ms. Makolo, the government spokeswoman.

Felly Kimenyi
Sanaa Almerdas (right) shares a light moment with young customers at the family's cafe in Kigali, Rwanda. Refugees from Yemen given protection by the Rwandan government, the Almerdas family has settled comfortably in the capital, Kigali.

Still, Frank Habineza, a vocal opposition member of Parliament, says Rwanda has no good reason to sign such an agreement.

“We are neither bigger nor richer than the U.K. There is pressure on natural resources and it is likely to bring conflict,” he says. 

The economic windfall that will come from the U.K. deal, Mr. Habineza says, is “not clean money. Rwanda is being complicit in human rights violations by the U.K.,” he adds. 

In London, on the other hand, activists are concerned that the deal could land refugees in a country that is itself beset by allegations of human rights abuses by President Paul Kagame’s administration. 

Mr. Johnson has brushed off such worries, calling Rwanda “one of the safest countries in the world.” But just last year, his ambassador for human rights, Rita French, regretted at the U.N. Human Rights Council that its government had refused to carry out “credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.”

In the early years of his tenure, Mr. Kagame was feted by the West as he stabilized and rebuilt a country shattered by genocide. But two decades on, critics have accused his government of becoming increasingly authoritarian, and of ordering political assassinations both at home and abroad.

Mr. Habineza, the opposition politician, once felt obliged to withdraw from a presidential election after his vice presidential running mate was killed and beheaded.

Details to follow …

Much is still unclear about how exactly the refugee deal would work in practice. “We are still working out the operational details,” says Ms. Makolo.

One uncertainty concerns the numbers of refugees who would be processed in Rwanda. Mr. Johnson has said that an “unlimited” number of people could be relocated. Rwanda will have “the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead,” he said the day the deal was unveiled.

On Thursday, government officials showed off three reception centers where they said asylum-seekers will be housed, with a capacity of 722 beds. Last year, according to British government figures, over 35,000 people entered the U.K. irregularly, 28,526 of them by boat.

“We are jointly assessing with the U.K. at every step how many are to be sent,” Ms. Makolo explained.

To be sure, Rwanda has a long history of welcoming refugees. Mr. Kagame, who himself grew up in a refugee camp, has overseen one of the continent’s most inclusive resettlement programs. A fraction of the U.K. in population and size, Rwanda already hosts some 130,000 refugees – almost the same as Britain.

Burhan Almerdas is among them. Before fleeing Yemen in 2019, he knew nothing about Rwanda. Now, he runs a successful restaurant business in an up-market district of the capital where he and his wife have resettled. “I know many … do not want to come because they would rather prefer a good European lifestyle,” he says.

“But if you are looking for a place where you can make a living for your family in relative safety,” he adds, “then this is the place to be.”

Felly Kimenyi contributed reporting to this article from Kigali, Rwanda.

Editor's note: This article has been amended to reflect the Rwandan government's insistence that it will not send failed asylum seekers back to the countries from which they have fled.

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