Rwanda, the UK, and its refugees

Words by Student Ambassador Lina Jemil

The end of 2021 showed 89.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide as a result of devastating events and human rights violations. Only a few weeks ago, UK Home Secretary announced an asylum plan that will see UK asylum seekers sent to the East African country Rwanda, a ‘clear signal’ that there would be no right to remain in the UK. The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, alongside several human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have condemned the scheme and the High Court’s approval of charter flights.

We are now faced with three key questions. What encompasses the UK-Rwanda deal, what does this mean for the several displaced refugees and most importantly, what are the legal implications?

The deal and the courts

On the 14th of April 2022, the UK and Rwanda signed a Memorandum of Understanding that sets out the relocation terms of ‘asylum seekers who are not being considered by the UK to Rwanda. Despite widespread criticism and pleas from the public and affected claimants, Justice Jonathon Swift refused requests for injunctions to stop the first flight on Tuesday 14th June 2022, ruling that there was a ‘material public interest’ in allowing the policy. However, Swift granted permission for a coalition of NGOs, the Public and Commercial Services Union and four detainees to appeal against the ruling in the Court of Appeal. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which specialises in compliance with the European convention on human rights grounded a flight chartered from the UK to Rwanda. Out of seven other cases, this individual ruling was successful only an hour and a half before the flight was due to take off. Priti Patel later criticised the ECHR’s injunctions by highlighting the policy’s approval in domestic courts. The irony is, that most refugees originate from states that have suffered from British intervention, and the reality is that a lack of international responsibility has seen a growing number of asylum seekers resorting to dangerous and high-risk boat journeys across the English Channel.

The policy establishes that 4,000 asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda in the near months, 100 of which have legally challenged the decision within the first week of implementation. So far, the government has paid £120 million to Rwanda as a down payment for the deal. The government has failed to confirm the costs for legal expenses, flights and accommodation. The deal ensures that if the application for asylum is successful upon processing in Rwanda, the refugee will remain in the East African country. The UNHCR crucially highlighted Rwanda’s inaptness to process such applications, stating that ‘resettlement is not the only durable solution available for refugees’. The Universal Periodic Review process in 2020 exposed shortcomings in Rwanda’s asylum process, including the lack of legal representation and discriminatory access to vulnerable applicants.

What does this mean for the asylum seekers?

The Financial Times obtained the following comment from a 22-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker at Colnbrook detention centre at Heathrow:

“My dream when I fled Sudan was that I would never be imprisoned again for no reason. I did not think this was possible in the UK.”

Each story and case of a refugee is based on a human seeking basic human rights and from historic comparable policies, it can be expected for the human rights violations to be extended on behalf of the UK government.

Laura Dubinsky, a lawyer representing the UN refugee agency has notably summarised the deal as one which causes “serious, irreparable harm” and the findings made this early in the process show the beginning of a complex, right-wing agreement that embodies neo-colonial management of international relations and human rights.