Rwanda 'likely' to break asylum seeker deal with UK, campaigner warns

ENGLISH CHANNEL - MARCH 06: An inflatable dinghy carrying migrants crosses the English Channel on March 06, 2024 in the English Channel. According to official figures 401 migrants arrived in the UK by small boat on Monday, the busiest day of the year so far for Channel crossings. This brings the provisional total number of UK arrivals so far this year to 2,983. Government data indicates this is more than the 2,953 logged this time last year and surpasses the running totals documented between January 1 and March 4 each year since current records began in 2018. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
An inflatable dinghy carrying migrants crosses the English Channel in March. (Getty Images) (Dan Kitwood via Getty Images)

Rwanda could break the terms of its deal with the UK to take in its asylum seekers and face few consequences, a campaigner has warned.

On Tuesday it emerged that only 2,143 out of the 5,700 people identified for removal to the East African nation “continue to report to the Home Office and can be located for detention” – with the government insisting they "will be found".

However, some campaigners have since warned that even when the programme does get up and running, there is a "no way" for the Home Office to effectively monitor what has happened to those deported.

Dan Sohege, director of human rights group Stand for All, told Yahoo News that Rwanda signed a similar scheme with Israel that ended with asylum seekers being sent to a third country.

According to evidence heard by the UK's Supreme Court published in June 2023 some were “routinely moved clandestinely to Uganda even if they were willing to stay in Rwanda".

The evidence was gathered by the UNHCR, who interviewed people who had been sent to Rwanda between 2015 and 2017, adding that people were moved to the country's northern neighbour "even if they were willing to stay".

It adds: "Dozens of asylum-seekers reported that ‘their documents were confiscated’ on arrival, ‘and they were taken to a house in Kigali where they were kept under guard’, before being ‘smuggled to Uganda’."

Many also ended up back in Europe via smuggling routes.

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The UK and Rwanda signed a treaty in December promising to strengthen protections for migrants and to prevent any being deported to their home countries, but Sohege says this promise is not worth the paper it's written on.

Under the terms of the UK treaty, Rwanda is not permitted to "remove any person relocated, in any circumstances, to a country other than the UK".

"When the Supreme Court heard the case one of the issues raised was how Rwanda had previously failed to abide by its processing agreement with Israel, which led to an increased risk of refoulement. The likelihood is that something similar will happen this time.

"Based on Rwanda's previous form, it means nothing. Once they're sent to Rwanda, they're placed under the auspices of the Rwandan authorities and the Home Office has no way to monitor effectively out there."

Once asylum seekers coming to the UK via small boats and other methods classified as "illegal" are sent to Rwanda, Sohege says it will be unclear what will happen to them.

"The UK has reduced its recourse to do anything about it because it's passed a bill which states that Rwanda is safe under all circumstances. Rwanda could go to war at this stage in time and the Rwanda Bill means that it has to still be classed as safe.

"Even if that were not the case, once people are removed, this government is going to wash its hands of them, so it won't make a difference if Rwanda renege, they won't be following it up.

"They have that evidence, from the Israeli deal... they've already got that evidence and they've ignored it."

April 30, 2024, London, England, United Kingdom: Home Secretary JAMES CLEVERLY is seen in Downing Street as cabinet meet. (Credit Image: © Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!
Home secretary James Cleverly and other ministers have insisted Rwanda is a safe country. (Alamy) (ZUMA Press, ZUMA Press, Inc.)

A report into the Israeli scheme by the International Refugee Rights Initiative interviewed a number of people who said they'd been deported from Israel to Rwanda.

It said: "The majority, if not all, are being smuggled out of the country by land to Kampala [in Uganda] within days of arriving in [the Rwandan capital] Kigali.

“They are not given an opportunity to apply for asylum, and even if they wish to stay in Rwanda, their refugee claims cannot be assessed as the national refugee status determination committee has not yet been established."

Sohege says there's a risk that asylum seekers could be forced into the Rwandan military to fight neighbouring countries, as flagged by the UK high commissioner in 2022, according to internal memos revealed in court.

A great deal of those who left Rwanda under the deal ended up in Europe by going through established smuggling routes.

Rwandan armed forces prepare to board a flight to Mozambique, at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda Saturday, July 10, 2021. Rwanda on Friday said it would immediately deploy 1,000 members of its armed forces and police to northern Mozambique to help battle an Islamic extremist insurgency. (AP Photo/Muhizi Olivier)
Concerns have been raised over asylum seekers being forced to fight for Rwanda's army. (Alamy) (Muhizi Olivier, Associated Press)

While on the face of it, a repeat of this under the UK's scheme would appear to be an abject failure, Sohege doesn't believe Rishi Sunak's government will be particularly concerned.

"With the Illegal Migration Act, they've made sure that they don't have to process these migrants anymore... You're not actually reducing the number of people coming, but the government won't have to look at them. They won't have them on the asylum figures, so they can then say, 'look, we've reduced this backlog, we're doing something about this, but no one is looking at the rest of the numbers."

Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza has also said the deal with Rwanda amounts to "modern slavery". Given the country's questionable judicial system, and its decision to block her from standing or leaving the country to visit her ill husband, she told the Guardian she doubts it will follow the terms of its agreement with Britain. Rwanda has firmly rejected her claims.

Although the Rwanda scheme is uncapped, the country is currently only thought to have capacity to process around 200 asylum seekers sent from the UK per year.

Considering there were 6,265 small boat arrivals between 1 January and 21 April 2024, according to the Home Office, Sohege says this will barely make a dent.

"I would say that this is effectively a £500m PR stunt to get one picture of one plane taking off, which is why they've recently started offering to pay people £3,000, reportedly, to voluntarily go to Rwanda, just so they can get that one flight off before an election."

Lucy Gregg, acting head of advocacy at human rights charity Freedom from Torture, pointed out that with the UK having recently granted asylum status to people arriving from Rwanda, "it couldn't be clearer that this government doesn't believe its own dangerous, headline-grabbing rhetoric".

"Over and over again, we’ve been told that Rwanda is safe. Yet this government’s own recent reports on Rwanda show extreme human rights abuses, including torture," she added.

"We urgently need a fair and compassionate asylum system in the UK and to stop trying to export our vital protection responsibilities onto the rest of the world."

Yahoo News has contacted the government of Rwanda for comment.

A UK government spokesperson said: "We have proven time and again that Rwanda is a safe country, most recently with our landmark Safety of Rwanda Act. We remain confident in the country’s strong and successful track record in resettling people, hosting more than 130,000 refugees and asylum seekers.”