UK plans to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda

Jill LawlessAP
The British government has announced a trial scheme to send some arriving asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Camera IconThe British government has announced a trial scheme to send some arriving asylum seekers to Rwanda. Credit: AP

Britain's Conservative government has struck a deal with Rwanda to send some asylum seekers thousands of kilometres away to the East African country, a move that opposition politicians and refugee groups condemned as inhumane, unworkable and a waste of public money.

Home Secretary Priti Patel visited the Rwandan capital Kigali on Thursday to sign what the two countries call an "economic development partnership".

The plan will see some people who arrive in Britain in small boats across the English Channel picked up by the UK government and flown 6400km to Rwanda, apparently for good.

Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, either by stowing away in trucks or on ferries, or - increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic shut down other routes in 2020 - in dinghies and other small boats organised by smugglers.

More than 28,000 people entered the UK on small boats last year, up from 8500 in 2020. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday said action was needed to stop "vile people smugglers (who) are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard".

In a speech near the Channel coast, Johnson said "those who try to jump the queue or abuse our system" would be "swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin".

He said "anyone entering the UK illegally ... may now be relocated to Rwanda".

Rwanda confirmed the deal in a statement, but neither government provided full details of how it would work.

The Rwandan government said the migrants would be given "a range of opportunities for building a better life in a country which has been consistently ranked as one of the world's safest".

Johnson denied that the move was "lacking in compassion" but acknowledged it would inevitably face legal challenges and would not take effect immediately.

Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, and competition for land and resources there has already fuelled decades of ethnic and political tensions that culminated in the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed.

Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised President Paul Kagame's current government for being repressive.

Johnson, however, insisted that Rwanda had "totally transformed" in the last two decades.

Previous policies of sending refugee applicants abroad have been highly controversial.

In 2013, Australia began sending asylum-seekers attempting to reach the country by boat to Papua New Guinea and the tiny atoll of Nauru, vowing that none would be allowed to settle in Australia.

The policy all but ended the people-smuggling route from Southeast Asia, but was widely criticised as a cruel abrogation of Australia's international obligations.

Advocates for refugees said the plan was so extreme it was unfathomable.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee director at Amnesty International UK, said the British government's "shockingly ill-conceived idea will go far further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money".

He said Rwanda's "dismal" human rights record made the idea even worse.

Opposition politicians accused the government of trying to distract attention from a scandal over government parties that breached pandemic lockdown rules.

Johnson this week was among dozens of people fined by police over the parties, making him the first British leader ever found to have broken the law while in office.

He is resisting calls from opponents, and from some lawmakers in his own party, to resign.

Labour Party lawmaker Lucy Powell said the Rwanda plan might please some Conservative supporters and grab headlines, but was "unworkable, expensive, and unethical".

"I think this is less about dealing with small boats and more about dealing with the prime minister's own sinking boat," Powell told the BBC.

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