Why does Britain want to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda?

A high-profile flight is due to arrive in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, this week, but it won’t be transporting asylum seekers as the U.K. government had intended to deport to the East African nation, after a court injunction grounded its first planned flight on June 14.

Instead, the plane will be transporting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. 

Prince Charles, who has reportedly criticized the deportation policy in private, is slated to attend, along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders from the 54 member nations of the Commonwealth. 

The six-day gathering starts on June 20 – World Refugee Day, coincidentally. 

Asylum-seeker advocates hope Johnson’s Commonwealth counterparts, who are set to arrive later in the week, will raise concerns about the deportation plan in person in Kigali as the policy continues to face legal challenges at home.

Who is Britain trying to deport?

Johnson’s Conservative government reached what it called a “world-leading” agreement with Rwanda in April to relocate asylum seekers who arrived on British shores some 6,500 kilometres away in Rwanda. Johnson called Rwanda “one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognized for its record on welcoming and integrating migrants.”

The policy applies to so-called irregular migrants — including asylum seekers who fled violence, persecution or poverty in their home countries and were smuggled into Britain.

These asylum seekers are predominantly from Iran, Iraq, Eritrea and Syria, according to the U.K Defence Ministry. Seventy-five per cent have been men between the ages of 18 to 39.

Britain’s Defence Ministry documented more than 28,500 people suspected of arriving by small boats crossing the English Channel, accounting for roughly half of all U.K. asylum claims registered in 2021. That’s a 20,000-person increase over the year before. In 2018, the ministry only logged 299 such arrivals.

WATCH | Last-minute ruling stops deportations:

Britain calls off deportation flight to Rwanda

The British government has postponed its first scheduled flight to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, according to multiple British media reports.

How will the government decide?

The U.K-Rwanda deal was introduced in tandem with a new Nationality and Borders Bill that allows the government to “distinguish between people coming [to the U.K.] legally and illegally.”

Any asylum seeker arriving “illegally” since the start of this year, and passing through other countries where they could have claimed asylum, could be subject to deportation without their claim ever being heard in the U.K.

A crowd of people carrying protest signs bearing the words "Refugees Welcome" and other messages.
Protesters rally against plans for U.K. deportation flights to Rwanda outside the Home Office, in London, on June 13. (Leon NealGetty Images)

Why does Britain want to deport these asylum seekers?

Home Secretary Priti Patel said in April that the U.K.’s asylum system “is collapsing under a combination of real humanitarian crises and evil people smugglers profiteering by exploiting the system for their own gain.”

At the time, her office said the asylum system was racking up $2.4-billion-a-year (1.5-billion GBP) in spending, including more than $7 million (4.7 million GBP) a day on housing asylum seekers and refugees.

How much will this deal cost? 

Britain will provide the equivalent of $188 million (120 million GPB) in economic development support to Rwanda in exchange for accepting the asylum seekers it deports. That sum does not include all of the deportees’ travel, accommodation, processing and integration expenses in Rwanda. 

Those costs could add up to around $19,000 (12,000 GPB) per individual, roughly the same as what the government pays per asylum seeker in the U.K. 

People walk in front of a concrete residential building with balconies, and green trees lining the front.
The exterior of the Hope Hostel, which is one of the locations expected to house asylum seekers due to be sent from Britain to Rwanda, is seen in the capital Rwandan capital Kigali. (The Associated Press)

That figure does not include the legal bills for various U.K. court challenges to the deportation policy.

Johnson has said there is no cap on the number of deportations, and Rwanda could “resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab later sought to “manage expectations,” saying it was “more likely to be in the hundreds” annually. 

As of now, the agreement is in place for a five-year trial period.

Will the plan deter human smuggling? 

Patel argued the deportation scheme was aimed at preventing illegal boat crossing and intended as a means of putting smugglers “out of business.”

Critics say supposed deterrence policies can actually “create a boom time for smugglers and traffickers.” 

“Restrictive policies that seek to limit the ways in which refugees can reach safety tend to increase the cost to people of trying to travel to safer places,” said Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

“Unfortunately, due to the absence of organized, safe and legal routes to protection, such as resettlement, the vast majority of refugees are forced to use irregular routes and to put themselves into the hands of smugglers.”

Patel is vowing harsher prison sentences for smugglers. English Channel crossings have not decreased since the U.K. and Rwanda signed the deal. Nearly half of the more than 10,000 people who risked their lives this year crossing the English Channel have arrived since Patel signed the agreement with Rwanda on April 14, according to weekly tallies of small boat arrivals posted on the Ministry of Defence website.

Why do asylum seekers take such risk?

The U.K government has shut down a number of “safe routes” for asylum, said Graeme McGregor of Detention Action, one of the British organizations campaigning against the deportation policy. One such program was the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for Syrian refugees, which ended in 2021.

McGregor said many of the asylum seekers who make their way across the Channel to Britain do so because they have family connections there but, in some cases, legal reunification efforts have failed and entering the U.K. by such risky means is a desperate last resort.

What happens once they’re in Rwanda?

Rwanda isn’t necessarily the end of the road for deportees. They will have to apply to stay there long term. If their U.K. refugee claim fails, there may be a chance they can remain in Rwanda on other grounds or they could also be deported from Rwanda as well.

Wherever they end up, it’s not likely to be the U.K., said McGregor.

According to the Memorandum of Understanding, the British government would allow individuals to return “should the United Kingdom be legally obliged.”

On June 8, Home Office Minister of State Baroness Williams of Trafford told parliament only a “small number of the most vulnerable refugees” would ever be resettled in the U.K. after being relocated to Rwanda.

Does the policy adhere to Britain’s agreements?

British Home Secretary Patel has said Rwanda is a legitimate destination for deportees as both it and the U.K. are signatories of the international Refugee Convention, which outlines the rights of refugees worldwide. 

Critics note the convention states refugees have “the right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions, and the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state.”

A woman speaks at a podium in the British Parliament.
Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel makes a statement to MPs in the House of Commons related to deportation plans on June 15. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via The Associated Press)

“By sending refugees and asylum seekers to a faraway country, a less well-resourced country like Rwanda … that’s actually responsibility shifting by the U.K. government,” said Matt Saltmarsh, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

Although UNHCR has its own “emergency humanitarian mechanism” to evacuate vulnerable asylum seekers from a dangerous situation in Libya to Rwanda, he said Britain is “more than capable of managing the number of people seeking asylum.” 

What is Canada’s position on the British plan?

The Canadian government won’t say if Trudeau will speak to Johnson about the deportation plan while in Rwanda. 

“It would be inappropriate for Canada to discuss the United Kingdom’s own immigration and refugee policy as that would be a domestic matter,” Aidan Strickland, the press secretary at the Office of the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said in an email to CBC News. 

What is the status of deportations now?

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), of which the U.K. is a member, issued an “urgent interim measure” last week, at the request of rights groups. This halted the removal of one of the seven asylum seekers due to be deported on a June 14 flight. 

A passenger plane waits on the tarmac, with a bus parked in front of the staircase leading up to the aircraft.
A plane meant to be carrying asylum seekers is seen parked in the U.K. following a June 14 decision by the European Court of Human Rights in favour of an appeal by one of men set to be deported. (Finbarr Webster/Getty Images)

The injunction stated he should not be deported for at least three weeks following the final outcome of a U.K. High Court judicial review of the policy’s legality slated for next month.

The ECHR ruling opened the door for last-minute U.K. court appeals on behalf of other asylum seekers on the flight, ultimately grounding it.

The U.K. government has said the court’s injunctions aren’t binding, accused it of being politically motivated, and vowed to move ahead with the plan. Home Secretary Patel said she expects further legal challenges.

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