The deal between Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to outsource political asylum cases has come under fire from international human rights organisations, the UN High Commission for Refugees and now the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, head of the Anglican church and spiritual leader some 80 million Christians.
Under the deal, Britain would pay Rwanda’s government over US$150 million to accommodate young male refugees who have applied for political asylum.
Preaching on Easter Sunday, Archbishop Welby said the plan to deport asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda, 4000 miles from where they sought sanctuary, does not stand “the judgement of God”.
“It cannot carry the weight of our national responsibility of a country formed by Christian values, because sub-contracting out our responsibilities, even to a country that seeks to do well like Rwanda, is the opposite of the nature of God.” It was one of Welby’s sharpest political interventions since he became Archbishop.
Other critics of the deal have gone still further in their condemnation. Amnesty International called the Rwanda plan “appalling”. A letter from 150 organisations supporting refugees to Prime Minister Johnson on 15 April argued the plan would cause “immense suffering” and “result in more, not fewer dangerous journeys – leaving more people at risk of being trafficked”.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of Britain’s Refugee Council, says the Johnson government has not offered any assurances about whether those asylum seekers sent to Rwanda will be entitled to healthcare and other welfare benefits, or whether they will be entitled to work.
“The deal reveals that the [British] government is showing total disregard for the welfare and wellbeing of very vulnerable people. It is treating them as human cargo to be shipped to Rwanda and forgotten about,” Solomon told The Guardian in London.
Some MPs from Johnson’s ruling Conservative party have condemned it and are set to join the opposition Labour party in trying to censure it in parliament. Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, usually a loud cheerleader for President Kagame, told the BBC the plan was impractical, immoral and incredibly expensive.
Rory Stewart, a former Conservative who was also a Minister for Africa, has said the Rwanda asylum plan looks to have been rushed out to distract British voters from the furore around Prime Minister Johnson’s flouting of pandemic lockdown laws.
The ruling Conservative party is facing local elections on 5 May when many are expected to punish the government as economic conditions worsen and energy costs rocket.
Apart from the $150 million down payment from London, the refugee outsourcing scheme offers political kudos to Kagame’s government.
The asylum accord flies in the face of Britain’s call last year for Rwanda to “conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice.”
Julian Braithwaite, Britain’s director for Europe policy, also recommended that Rwanda should “screen, identify and provide support to trafficking victims, including those held in Government transit centres.”
Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel flew to Rwanda last week to finalise the plan which will involve a payment of over US$150 million to Kigali.
Before she left, Patel issued a “ministerial direction” which allows her to push through plans which civil servants have advised against on grounds of unjustified cost and impracticality.
Officials in Whitehall have conceded that the scheme may be neither cost efficient nor effective in deterring people-smuggling gangs.
In a jointly-authored opinion column in the London Times, Patel and Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Vincent Buruta berate those criticising the asylum plan for not having offered any practical alternative.
Patel adds that Britain may also take in some of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees.
“It will disrupt the business model of organised crime gangs and deter migrants from putting their lives at risk,” wrote the the two ministers, defending their countries’ partnership as “groundbreaking”.
British officials say they are planning for the first set of asylum seekers to be sent to Kigali early next month.
But they concede that migration support groups could hold that up with challenges in Britain’s courts. Some of those could be backed by international organisations.
Officials at the UN Refugee agency have said the deal would not meet Britain’s international legal responsibilities and would be unworkable. It urged Britain and Rwanda to rethink the plan.
And human rights groups have lambasted the Rwanda government’s record on refugee protection. In 2018, police arrested over 60 refugees, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were protesting outside UN offices about cuts in their food rations.
Kigali charged some of the refugees with “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.”
Rwanda’s Biruta told a press conference in Kigali that the scheme would cover asylum seekers already in Britain, “… we’d prefer not to receive people from neighbouring countries, like DRC, … Burundi, Uganda or Tanzania.”
He added the refugees would be entitled to protection under Rwandan law.
But according to Dr Niovi Vavoula, a migration expert at Queen Mary School of Law in London, the British-Rwanda deal could be challenged under the international principle of non-refoulement that bars the sending of refugees to a country where they would “face torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment or other irreparable harm.”
And that is what several human rights and refugee campaigners are considering. They could trigger a series of costly and politically embarrassing court cases in Britain and beyond in the coming weeks.
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