The British government’s plan to send asylum seekers in the United Kingdom to Rwanda for processing is facing a bumpy ride, with criticism coming from all angles.
This follows the announcement of the £120 million deal, on Thursday, by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), civil servants at the British Home Office, which is in charge of immigration and asylum, and over 160 human rights and campaign groups are strongly opposed to the deal.
A statement by the UNHCR expressed “strong opposition and concerns” over the UK’s plan to “export its asylum obligations” and urged the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “refrain from transferring asylum seekers and refugees” to Rwanda.
“UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards,” said the UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs.
“Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations, and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.
“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy.
“They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing,” she added.
The UNHCR said the UK and Rwanda should re-think the plan, warning: “Instead of deterring refugees from resorting to perilous journeys, these externalisation arrangements will only magnify risks, causing refugees to seek alternative routes, and exacerbating pressures on frontline states”.
The UNHCR noted that Rwanda had “generously provided a safe haven to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution for decades”.
It said the majority lived in camps with limited access to economic opportunities, but now “wealthier nations must show solidarity in supporting Rwanda and the refugees it already hosts, and not the other way around”.
“The UK has an obligation to ensure access to asylum for those seeking protection,”the statement emphasised.
“Those who are determined to be refugees can be integrated, while those who are not and have no other legal basis to stay, can be returned in safety and dignity to their country of origin.
“Instead, the UK is adopting arrangements that abdicate responsibility to others and thus threaten the international refugee protection regime, which has stood the test of time, and saved millions of lives over the decades.”
It was reported that the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, overrode opposition to the plan by her officials by invoking a “ministerial direction” that gave her sole responsibility for the decision.
It was only the second time the Home Office had used such power since 1990.
The General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents civil servants, Mark Serwotka, said: “For the government to attempt to claim this is anything other than utterly inhumane is sheer hypocrisy.
“We have already seen that they are prepared to risk lives by turning boats back in the [English] Channel – a policy which we have had to take them to court over.
“It is a heartless approach that displays total disregard for human life which everyone must oppose.”
In a radio interview on Saturday, the opposition Labour Party’s Shadow Minister for Prisons, Ellie Reeves, said the government’s plan was “completely misguided”.
She noted: “The government is going to be paying £120 million upfront before any asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda.
“Asylum seekers are saying it won’t deter them from crossing the Channel.
“We are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis so it doesn’t seem the right way to be spending money on an unethical and unworkable scheme that won’t deter people from coming over.”
Announcing the plan on Thursday, Mr Johnson said “this innovative approach…will provide safe and legal routes for asylum, while disrupting the business model of the gangs” that had been smuggling people.
He said this would mean that “economic migrants taking advantage of the asylum system will not get to stay in the UK, while those in genuine need will be properly protected, including with access to legal services on arrival in Rwanda, and given the opportunity to build a new life in that dynamic country, supported by the funding we are providing”.
The plan means that anyone entering the UK illegally – as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 – may be relocated to Rwanda.
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