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It is time to ditch the Rwanda asylum plan

Ellis Coughlan
November 20, 2023

Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling is an embarrassment for a weak government lacking a cohesive plan to address the influx of small boats crossing the English Channel. The result merely reiterated what we already knew to be true: the Rwanda policy is unethical, unlawful, and unworkable.

This government championed the Rwanda Scheme to fulfil one of the Prime Minister’s five pledges - stopping the boats. This comes following a record 45,700 people arriving by boat in 2022. However, public money is being wasted on a performative scheme which fails to achieve the intended aims.

The programme will allow the government to detain those arriving ‘illegally’ and remove them to Rwanda. In this ‘safe third country’, asylum seekers can apply for refugee status.

The scheme is riddled with flaws. Firstly, as highlighted by the Supreme Court, the scheme falls short of our international commitments. Since 1986, the European Court of Human Rights has established a precedent: removing individuals to states where they face a danger of persecution breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Supreme Court found Rwanda unfit as a safe third country due to its inadequate asylum process. The deficiencies in Rwanda’s system risk deporting asylum seekers to their home countries where they face persecution. Human Rights Watch reports extensive human rights violations in Rwanda and the High Court highlighted Rwanda’s high rate of asylum claim rejections.

Ensuring claims are managed within legal frameworks poses a complex and challenging logistical task.

While the outgoing Home Secretary advocates for withdrawing from the ECHR, withdrawal does not render the scheme ethical. It simply makes it easier to flout international law, and in particular, the principle of non-refoulement as outlined in the Refugee Convention. This fundamental principle forbids returning asylum seekers to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution.

The government’s rhetoric regarding irregular arrivals is similarly incompatible with the Refugee Convention, which prescribes freedom from penalties for illegal entry. For asylum seekers, there is no such thing as ‘illegal entry’. How can it be expected that those fleeing conflict or persecution will have travel documents or access to legal routes?

For asylum seekers, there is no such thing as ‘illegal entry’ Quote

Despite government claims of legal routes for refugees, these options are practically inaccessible to all but Ukrainian refugees.

In addition to ethical and legal concerns, the scheme will not address the problem. The government has placed all its eggs in a feeble basket, offering no alternative. By choosing Rwanda as the hill to die on, the government left their only plan in the hands of the courts.

Advocates believe the plan will deter ‘illegal’ journeys to the UK. I remain sceptical. Academics agree that such policies rarely deter people from seeking refuge. Language, culture, and family ties are strong factors in influencing the choice of destination. Moreover, migration drivers – conflict, persecution, poverty – often outweigh deportation risks. The government is trying to mimic Australia’s non-entrée practices, but our unique circumstances make this approach infeasible.

Deporting migrants to Rwanda will not address the influx of 27,000 migrants who have arrived this year alone. Despite government assertions of an uncapped capacity, Rwanda’s reports indicate a processing limit of 1,000 over five years. A mere drop in the ocean. UN data also reveals that Rwanda’s average yearly processing was 200 claims from 2017 to 2020.

Additionally, the scheme is financially undesirable. The government’s own ‘impact assessment’ revealed that the scheme could cost £169,000 per deportation, £63,000 more than spent on housing support if they remain in the UK. For the 27,000 migrants arriving this year, this cost would amount to over £4.6 billion. How is this justifiable?

The government even conceded in June that ministers do not know the overall costs of implementing the plan, indicating that it could be much higher. The cost of transferring asylum seekers, meeting their needs, and managing the scheme’s administrative and operational aspects significantly outweigh any potential benefits.

Finally, the government fails to account for unforeseen circumstances. Privilege Style, the airline contracted by the Home Office for deportation flights, withdrew from the Rwanda scheme following pressure from refugee charities. Two other airlines with prior involvement in the deportation flights also declined participation.

The scheme also relies on cooperation with, and the stability of Rwanda. Changes in political, economic, or social conditions could impact the scheme’s viability and effectiveness.

The court’s decision on Rwanda is the right one. It has exposed the absence of a cohesive strategy, underlying the futility of persisting with a scheme that risks refoulement. This decision makes clear that striving to make the scheme work is not only pointless but also damaging to our international standing. This is a case of returning to the drawing board.

This government has wasted an entire year trying to make an unworkable, ethically dubious scheme workable. Sunak must not push ahead with emergency legislation. The time has come to explore realistic solutions that could have an actual impact.

Screenshot 2023 10 03 173328

Ellis Coughlan is a Political and Media Consultant at Bridgehead Communications. 

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