Britain’s Conservative government has struck a deal with Rwanda to send some asylum seekers thousands of miles away to the East African country, a move that opposition politicians and refugee groups have condemned as inhuman, impractical and a waste of public money.
Interior Minister Priti Patel visited the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on Thursday to sign what the two countries called the “Economic Development Partnership”. The plan would see some people arriving in Britain as stowaways on trucks or in small boats across the English Channel picked up by the UK government and traveling 4,000 miles (6,400 km) to Rwanda, seemingly forever.
Migrants have long used northern France as a springboard to reach Britain, either by hiding in trucks or ferries, or – increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic closed other routes in 2020 – in boats and other small boats organized by smugglers. More than 28,000 people entered the UK on small boats last year, up from 8,500 in 2020. Dozens died, including 27 in November when one boat capsized.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said action was needed to stop “evil people smugglers (who) abuse the weak and turn the canal into a watery graveyard”.
In a speech near the Channel Coast, Johnson said “anyone who enters the UK illegally… may now be transferred to Rwanda”.
The Rwandan government said the agreement would initially run for five years and that Britain had paid 120 million pounds ($158 million) up front to pay for housing and integration costs.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Perrota said the agreement “is about ensuring that people are protected, respected and empowered to realize their own aspirations and permanently settle in Rwanda if they so choose.”
He said his country already has more than 130,000 refugees from countries including Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.
Johnson denied the plan was “lacking on empathy” but acknowledged that it would inevitably face legal challenges and would not take effect immediately.
Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, and competition for land and resources there has fueled decades of ethnic and political tensions that culminated in the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the current government of President Paul Kagame for being repressive.
However, Johnson insisted that Rwanda has been “totally transformed” in the past two decades.
Britain says resettlement decisions will not be based on the migrants’ country of origin but on whether they have used “illegal or dangerous routes” to reach the UK from a safe country such as France. Not all such arrivals will be deemed fit to be sent to Rwanda; It was not clear what the criteria for making decisions would be.
Previous policies to send asylum seekers abroad have been highly controversial.
In 2013, Australia began sending asylum seekers trying to reach the country by boat to Papua New Guinea and the tiny atoll of Nauru, vowing not to allow any of them to settle in Australia. This policy nearly ended the ocean-smuggling route of people from Southeast Asia, but has been widely criticized as a callous abrogation of Australia’s international obligations.
Israel sent several thousand people to Rwanda and Uganda under a controversial and secret “voluntary” scheme between 2014 and 2017. It is believed that few remained there, while many tried to reach Europe.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of refugee affairs at Amnesty International UK, said the “shockingly ill-considered idea of the British government would go so far as to inflict suffering while wasting huge sums of public money”.
The chief executive of the UK-based Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, described the matter as “dangerous, cruel and inhumane”.
Rwandan opposition figure Victoire Ingabere told The Associated Press that her government’s decision to take in the migrants is questionable, given that the country is also a source of refugees.
“Rwanda has consistently ranked (as) one of the safest countries in the world, but at the same time it has always been a sad country,” she said.
The British and French governments worked for years to stop flights across the channels, without much success, often trading accusations over who was responsible for the failure.
Britain’s Conservative government has put forward proposals, not all of which are viable, including building a wave machine in the canal to bring back the boats. Johnson said on Thursday that the Royal Navy would take responsibility for responding to small boat crossings, but the idea of pushing ships back toward France was dismissed as too dangerous.
Several previously proposed locations for the UK to send migrants to – including the remote island of Ascension, Albania and Gibraltar – have been rejected, at times angrily, by the countries involved.
Rwanda’s plan faces hurdles both in the British Parliament and in the courts. Johnson’s Conservative government has introduced a tough new immigration bill that would make it more difficult for people entering the country via unauthorized routes to claim asylum and allow asylum seekers to undergo screening abroad. It has yet to be approved by Parliament, as the House of Lords seeks to commute some of its harsher provisions.
Opposition politicians have accused the government of trying to deflect attention from a scandal over government parties that violated the rules of the pandemic lockdown. Johnson is resisting calls to resign after being fined by police for party politics.
Labor MP Lucy Powell said the Rwanda plan may satisfy some conservative supporters and make headlines, but it is “impractical, expensive and immoral”.
“I think it’s not so much about dealing with the small boats as it is about dealing with the Prime Minister’s sinking boat,” Powell told the BBC.
Ignatius Ssuna from Kigali, Rwanda, and Andy Melderm in Johannesburg, South Africa contributed to this story.
Follow the Associated Press’s coverage of immigration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
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