LONDON — The U.K. will send asylum seekers who attempt to cross the English Channel to Rwanda for processing, after sealing a £120 million deal with the Rwandan government.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel will sign the agreement this afternoon during a visit to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, following nine months of negotiations and several failed attempts to reach similar deals with other countries and offshore territories.
Asylum seekers judged by the Home Office to likely be economic migrants would be flown to the Commonwealth country and held in a facility until their application is processed, while the rest of the asylum seekers would stay in stricter, Greek-style centers in Britain until the Home Office makes a decision on their applications. The first of such centers is expected to open in Linton-on-Ouse, North Yorkshire.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the deal in a speech Thursday in Kent, in which he argued Britain “cannot sustain a parallel immigration system” along with its post-Brexit points-based system because it creates unsustainable pressure for the U.K. taxpayer and is unfair to those applying to settle in Britain through “safe and legal routes.”
“From today, our new migration and economic partnership will mean that anyone arriving in the U.K. illegally as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 may now be relocated to Rwanda,” he said.
“This innovative approach, driven by our shared humanitarian impulse and made possible by Brexit freedoms, will provide safe and legal routes for asylum while disrupting the business model of the gangs because it means economic migrants taking advantage of the asylum system will not stay in the U.K.”
According to Home Office statistics, about 90 percent of the 28,526 migrants who arrived in Britain on small boats through the Channel last year were male, with the majority of these believed to be single. Officials say single men trying to get to the U.K. by this route are more likely to be economic migrants.
The Home Office’s aim is to discourage arrivals, which peaked at around 600 per day, but that Johnson said could reach 1,000, by making this route unviable and unappealing, and to insist asylum seekers should apply for protection in the first safe country they enter. This would mean most of them would have to stay in continental Europe.
Upon arrival in Britain, asylum seekers will be screened by U.K. authorities, who will consider if there are any reasons for them not be transferred to Rwanda. Unaccompanied minors, some people with special circumstances, and Rwandan nationals fleeing the regime of general Paul Kagame, in power since 2000, will not be relocated.
Asylum seekers may be subject to detention in the U.K. pending the acceptance or refusal of the transfer by Rwanda, which under the terms of the deal is entitled to reject migrants with criminal records among other reasons. The U.K. government envisages the use of charter flights for the transfers, which will be paid for by the British taxpayer.
Rwanda will decide whether to grant protection under Rwandan law, and those issued with asylum will be allowed to stay in the African country. Otherwise the Rwandan government will explore if those individuals can remain on other grounds, or should be relocated to another safe country or to their country of origin, unless officials believe they would face torture or degrading treatment if returned.
Rwanda will have the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead under the deal, which is “uncapped,” Johnson said.
He also confirmed controversial plans for the Royal Navy to take over patrolling the Channel “with the aim that no boat makes it to the U.K. undetected,” and pledged to end hotel accommodation for asylum seekers, which he said is costing £5 million a day.
The policy, announced before new asylum and immigration legislation concludes its passage through the U.K. parliament, mirrors Australia’s offshoring of asylum claims on an island 3,000 miles away. The British government believes this approach has helped Australia tackling flows of undocumented migrants — although Australia’s system has been criticized for being inhumane. Denmark, which has also held offshoring talks with Kigali, signed a memorandum of understanding on future cooperation with Rwanda in April but it is yet to strike an asylum deal.
In exchange for hosting asylum seekers and processing their claims, the U.K. would pay about £120 million to Rwanda, but this is believed to be an initial figure “which will alter depending [on] how well the scheme worked,” said Wales Secretary Simon Hart on Sky News.
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper questioned the workability of the policy, which she described as “extortionate” and “unethical.” She argued that offshoring 3,127 people under the Australian system cost 10 billion Australian dollars to the Australian taxpayer — or £1.7 million per person, much more than the £12,000 the Home Office estimates it spends on processing an asylum seeker in the U.K.
“That would make offshore processing over a hundred times more expensive,” she tweeted. “And would mean cost for UK taxpayer of sending people to Rwanda would be billions. Where is that money coming from?”
Immigration lawyer Christopher Desira said the policy raises many questions, starting with whether the U.K. government will give legal aid to lawyers trying to do their job in Rwanda and how migrants’ welfare will be safeguarded.
“Some countries that do this spend an exorbitant amount of money on it with very few positives,” he said. “Other countries that said they want to do this still haven’t figured out how to do this.”
Johnson acknowledged the system “will not take effect overnight” and promised to do “whatever it takes to deliver this new approach, initially within the limits of the existing legal and constitutional frameworks but also prepared to explore any and all further legal reforms which may be necessary.”
The prime minister described the Rwanda deal as an “indispensable component” of the British solution and said the U.K. is “confident” the plan is “fully compliant” with its international obligations, but said he expects it will be challenged in the courts. The U.N. refugee agency has raised doubts about U.K. asylum reform and whether it complies with the 1951 Refugee Convention.
If taken to court, Britain is expected to argue that there is nothing in the UN Refugee Convention that precludes the ability of the government to transfer individuals abroad.
Johnson described Rwanda as “one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognized for its record of welcoming and integrating migrants” and challenged the opposition to come up with a better policy to stop Channel crossings, arguing he firmly believed there is no other option.
Britain will continue to press for a returns agreement with the EU and France, he said, but noted the U.K. must have its own framework to stop the crossings now and avoid further deaths in the Channel “while waiting for a deal that just doesn’t exist.”
The announcement, made during parliamentary recess while MPs are away and in the middle of fresh Partygate controversy surrounding the prime minister, has attracted criticism from several Conservatives and NGOs working with refugees.
Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who’s called for a confidence vote on Johnson, told BBC the announcement was a “massive distraction” from the prime minister being fined over Downing Street parties during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
This article has been updated with additional information.