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  • Writer's pictureRowan Hirst

Stuck on the Roundabout to Rwanda

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

On the 7th of December, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held an emergency press conference, presumably in response to the resignation of his Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, the day prior. A current concern of Sunak’s is fighting the high levels of immigration into the UK, which reached record-breaking levels in 2022. One of his five key priorities stated this January was to stop the small boats crossing the English Channel. One means of doing this is via the Migration and Economic Development Partnership, an agreement with the government of Rwanda in which asylum-seekers arriving in the UK are transferred to Rwanda before their claims are reviewed. Due to a multitude of factors however, Sunak finds himself in an uphill battle where he is not only defending the policy from critics but also trying to get it operational.


Where Did It All Start?


The origins of the Rwanda policy are traced back to Boris Johnson’s 2022 cabinet, where this was delivered by then Home Office Secretary, Priti Patel. That year, the number of individuals crossing the English Channel via ‘small boats’ reached 45,700, breaking records.  In response, Patel adopted an Australian strategy recognised as ‘offshore processing’, in which asylum-seekers are instead processed in ‘third countries’, ideally reducing the costs of processing asylum in the UK where the cost of temporary housing is growing.


The current government is concerned with immigration levels as a whole but with a specific focus on deterring illegal immigration. The idea is that potential illegal immigrants will choose not to travel to the UK if they know they will be transferred to Rwanda.


The partnership was signed in April of 2022 when the government agreed to provide £140 million to the government of Rwanda. Since then, a further £100 million has been sent to Rwanda, with a further £50 million scheduled for next year. Despite totalling a potential £290 million in taxpayer money - and being subject to 3 Prime Minister and 5 Home Office Secretaries (if one counts both of Suella Braverman’s stints) - the policy has yet to successfully transfer anyone. Some economic-impact assessments even estimate the policy costs £63,000 per individual more than keeping them in the UK.


At the time of its conception, the policy was already steeped in human rights controversies, later solidified by a last-minute European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling which declared and halted a flight to Rwanda on the runway.  The policy was not found unlawful, but upon reviewing the case of an Iraqi national on the scheduled flight, they grounded the flight on interim measures. Despite Brexit, the UK remains a subject of the conventions of the ECHR.


Domestically, the High Court of England and Wales ruled the policy was legal last December. However, this was later ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal this June which argued there were deficiencies in Rwanda’s asylum system, making it an unsafe choice for the UK. Following this, the Illegal Migration Act was passed this July, a piece of legislation allowing illegal migrants to be detained and sent home or to a third country, i.e. Rwanda.



The Smite of the Supreme Court

Leon Neal/PA


The most recent and problematic development for the Rwanda policy (at least for Sunak) is the ruling of the UK Supreme Court. On November 15th, all five judges upheld the appeal court ruling from June, agreeing that the risk of deported refugees having their asylum claims wrongly assessed and being sent home to face persecution was credible.


On the technical side of things, what the Supreme Court is concerned with is the lack of guarantee that the Rwandan government would respect the principle of ‘non-refoulement’. This is a core principle of international law which prohibits a country from returning individuals to a place where there is a real risk of human rights violations, including persecution, torture, and degrading treatment.


What this court ruling declares is that Rwanda is not a safe country, at least regarding the rights of refugees. This has been a core part of the controversy behind the Rwanda policy from the start. Over 160 organisations have called upon the government to scrap this plan, referring to the policy as “a shamefully cruel way to treat people who have come to the UK to seek protection, fleeing persecution or conflict”.


Rwanda has a spotty human rights record, having historically arrested journalists and commentators who openly criticised the government. After documenting the government’s human rights abuses online, Youtuber Dieudonne Niyonsenga was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined almost $5000. The Rwandan government has also been found directly abusing the rights of refugees. In 2018, police fired live ammunition upon protestors outside the UNHCR office. Refugees were protesting due to a cut in food rations, where the average spend per refugee decreased from $8.90 a month to $6.70.


The UNHCR has welcomed the recent Supreme Court ruling. Since the partnership was announced, the UNHCR has been concerned that it ‘proposes an asylum model that undermines the established international refugee protection system’ and externalises the UK’s asylum duties.



Why Rwanda?

Seldom mentioned in all the talk surrounding Rwanda is ‘Why Rwanda?’. The recent Supreme Court ruling sheds some light on this, however there are a couple more reasons.


The recent ruling referenced the failure of a scheme between Israel and Rwanda in 2013. This scheme offered refugees a small degree more freedom than the proposed UK policy. Individuals were given a choice of being detained in Israel or being transferred to Rwanda but with $3,500 in their pockets. Naturally, then-Home Secretary Patel told the court this evidence was “irrelevant”.


As mentioned earlier, the general strategy of the Rwanda policy is referred to as ‘offshore processing’. Australia introduced and coined this term, and it is speculated that the UK sees them as a role model for this strategy, given its reputation as a state with some of the strictest borders. Although its implementation has been intermittent, and its effectiveness questioned, the ‘Pacific Solution’, first implemented in 2001 saw those trying to enter Australia by water sent to centres on small islands to have their claims processed.


A third factor here is the UK’s past relationship with Rwanda. In 2007, Project Umubano began in which former development minister, Andrew Mitchell, organised for MPs to be flown out to Rwanda where they would coach cricket. Fast forward to now, President Kagame, who has ruled since 2000, claims he is offering asylum centres on ‘humanitarian grounds’. Author Michela Wrong describes Kagame as “very good at identifying the issues that keep Western leaders awake at night and presenting them with a solution which seems to be effective and cut-price”.


Essentially, the incentive for both Rwanda and the UK (to some degree) is money and image. It is also worth noting here that a less-reported fact in the Rwanda debate is that Denmark is trying to do the exact same thing. They were recently criticised by a UN committee for the plan on the same grounds as the UK Supreme Court. Although they passed a law in 2021, allowing refugees to be removed to asylum centres abroad (Illegal Migration Act anyone?), there is no doubt recent action in the UK will give them reason for pause. Denmark has also not yet sent any migrants to Rwanda.


Can’t go through the law? Go around it


Human rights activists who were optimistic that court rulings could stop the Rwanda policy have reason to be greatly disappointed. Despite what convention says, Sunak is adamant to circumvent it.


Employing damage control, the government’s goal is now to officially prove Rwanda is a safe country of choice to transfer asylum-seekers to. This began on December 5th, 20 days after the Supreme Court ruling, where the new Home Secretary, James Cleverly, travelled to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to sign a treaty. Introduced to the original partnership agreement is a new appeal body comprised of judges with asylum expertise, and a promise of policy monitoring by an independent committee who will have increased powers to enforce the treaty.


This solves one part of the puzzle: safeguards. However, what Sunak’s government needs is expressed legal permission to transfer asylum-seekers. Thus, in last Thursday’s press briefing, the PM introduced an emergency bill titled ‘The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill’. This paramount goal of this piece of legislation is to ensure “every decision-maker must conclusively treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country”.


One might think Sunak’s idea is to mutilate the legal system, hacking off any limbs which could stand as an obstacle to an asylum-seekers’ journey to Rwanda, and adding arms that can throw the plane. The bill includes clauses which states courts “must not consider” any challenge to a removal decision based on the claim that Rwanda isn’t safe. Equally, they’re not allowed to assess claims regarding Rwanda’s failure to obey conventions, including the recently signed treaty.


Injected deep into this bill is the sneakiest part. The previous rules apply ‘notwithstanding’ any other form of international law. In its simplest terms, this means the courts can declare that the Rwanda policy is incompatible with certain conventions, such as the ECHR, but they cannot stand in the way of the law.


The bill is not bulletproof, however: the European courts are able to delay or stop a flight if they declare a person faces ‘a real, imminent and foreseeable risk of serious and irreversible harm’. Sunak assures that such cases will be ‘vanishingly rare’. Regardless, its lack of impenetrability has led to the recent resignation of Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, who cited “strong disagreements with the direction” of Sunak’s policies on immigration. The day after, Sunak spliced Jenrick’s previous role into two. The position of Illegal Migration Minister has been appointed to Michael Tomlinson, whilst Tom Pursglove has been appointed Legal Migration Minister.


On Tuesday the 12th of December, the House of Commons voted on the bill. It was passed by 313 to 269, a majority of 44 despite a supposed rebellion from the far-right wing caucus of the Tory party. This is comprised of splinter groups such as the European Research Group, Common Sense Group and the New Conservatives, with some suggesting that the UK should withdraw from the ECHR entirely. Head of the European Research Group, Mark Francois, has warned Sunak that rebels may destroy the bill at the next Commons vote unless it is stronger. More moderate conservatives, such as the One Nation Conservatives who offered a ‘lifeline’ on the bill, believe it should be reined in. Member and former deputy prime minister, Damian Green, described the bill as going “right to the very edge of what is acceptable.”



A Rock and A Hard Place


There are no winners here. Sunak is failing to satisfy the far-right members of his party and is teetering on aggravating his more moderate supporters. On one side, the bill is extreme as it circumvents the UK’s obligations to the ECHR. On the other, where the likes of Braverman and recent ‘resignee’ Jenrick sit, the bill is not extreme enough as it can be blocked by the ECHR’s interim measures.


No matter what Sunak does, he’s bound to rock the boat. He could have succumbed to the far-right calls of his party and lost the confidence of moderate voters and conservative members. Alternatively, he can continue as-is and potentially face a rebellion, triggering a publicity onslaught which brands him as a weak leader. Either way, what the Rwanda proceedings show is that British politics is continuing to implode.


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