Border Criminologies statement on the British Government’s proposal to forcibly send people seeking asylum to Rwanda

Border Criminologies is an international network of researchers, practitioners, and those who have experienced border controls. Our globalised expertise lies in research and advocacy around border controls, policing, and immigration detention.

We are writing to express our strong and unwavering opposition to the British Government’s plans to send people seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda, announced today. Under the new proposals, those who travel irregularly to the UK to seek asylum, for example across the Channel in boats or lorries, would be forcibly removed 4000 miles away to Rwanda. Rwanda would then process them under their own asylum procedures. If granted asylum, they would then stay in Rwanda. It is, as yet, unclear what will happen to those who were unsuccessful, but we assume Rwanda will attempt to negotiate returns agreements. It is also unclear who would be exempt from being sent to Rwanda, including women, children, and or possibly even even those fleeing Rwanda the country themselves.

These plans are inhumane and unethical, as well as very expensive. Established evidence has further shown that this kind of strategy, which is meant to deter, will be  ineffective because it fails to address the root causes of refugee movements, which spring from conflict, persecution, and poverty. For all these reasons, we call on the government to reconsider this decision. It must stop pandering to an imagined anti-immigrant public, particularly at when the wars in Ukraine and Afghanistan have revealed widespread compassion and solidarity among the British public for refugees. Instead of offshoring those in need, the government should deliver a compassionate and appropriate framework, based on respect for the legal right of every person to seek asylum, regardless of their route of entry, as enshrined in the Refugee Convention.

The evidence: costly, inhumane, ineffective

Strong evidence from other countries demonstrates these plans to be costly, inhumane, and ultimately ineffective. The stated cost of these plans stands currently at an initial £120 million, according to the Home Office. However, this sum is likely to be a gross underestimate of the full predicted cost, which the Home Office has yet to release. As highlighted by the Kaldor Centre in Australia, Australia’s process of offshoring asylum seekers to neighbouring islands continues to cost AUD$ 1-1.5 billion per year (up to £1 billion), significantly more than the sum needed to provide adequate support within Australia itself. And indeed, Australia’s model involves a significantly smaller number of people, and territories much closer to Australia than Rwanda is to the UK. We could therefore expect the cost of the UK’s proposal to be significantly higher.

The human cost, however, stands to be much greater still. We are deeply concerned about the implications of these proposals for safeguarding and the treatment of people seeking asylum. There is widespread evidence documenting the effects of offshore processing on the mental and physical health of those affected (see MSF’s report here, and additional studies on incidences of self harm here). Putting those seeking asylum ‘offshore’, away from scrutiny, has in other contexts resulted in systematic inhumane treatment which the British government should not condone (see Amnesty here). Evidence from the Australian system, for example, includes inadequate living conditions, instances of sexual and physical abuse by staff against asylum seekers, inadequate medical and psychological treatment, and failure to respect the rights of children (see here). The Home Office has failed to provide evidence for how it would mitigate these risks, given its own documented failings in detention centres in the UK (see recent evidence on Brook House and Napier Barracks).

The human rights situation in Rwanda further draws into question whether it is a ‘safe country’ for these purposes. While, as part of these proposals, the Home Office has committed to investing in Rwanda’s ‘economic development and growth’, the impact of decades of war and political upheaval have left their mark on Rwanda. The latest Human Rights Watch (see here and here) and Amnesty International reports have highlighted continued violations of the rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression, and privacy. They also noted the continuation of enforced disappearance, allegations of state torture and excessive use of force. We have particular concerns around the implications of evidence of the mistreatment of LGBT+ people in Rwanda.

Contrary to claims in the media, evidence from other countries shows that these policies will not have their intended ‘deterrence’ effect, and will not prevent people attempting to cross the Channel to claim asylum. Experts writing on Australia’s system have been clear in their assessment that these policies have been a failure on this front. Those seeking asylum have continued to arrive via boat, with offshoring having no measurable deterrent effect, and therefore failing to ‘undermine the business model’ of smugglers. The Home Office’s proposals will not address the underlying reasons why people are fleeing to safety, but instead, punish and criminalise them for doing so. We have written elsewhere about Rwanda’s previous relationship with Israel, which failed to provide appropriate protection, and instead forced people into dangerous onward journeys. This precedent strongly suggests that the British proposal will fail too, instead causing repeat onward journeys and putting already vulnerable people further at risk. This is not a humanitarian option.

Finally, while the Home Office believes these plans to be legal under current asylum law, as experts in the field, we have several well-founded questions which put this in doubt. Attempts to establish ‘offshore processing centres’ globally have consistently been subject to significant legal challenges, and this proposal will undoubtedly be no exception. Our concerns include several points relating to the plans adherence to the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights: the use of prolonged and arbitrary detention, interferences in family and private life, refoulement of Rwandans, risk of inadequate safeguarding screenings, lack of access to fair and efficient asylum screening procedures and appeals processes, inhumane living conditions, lack of access to appropriate medical facilities, and the denial of timely durable solutions. While the UK is attempting to ‘outsource’ its legal responsibility for asylum seekers, we therefore expect significant legal challenges to this proposal.

Informed by this evidence, and the expertise of our board and team as leading researchers and practitioners in this area, including people with lived experience of asylum systems, we call for this proposal to be abolished. We demand an end to the global race-to-the bottom approach to treatment of those fleeing their countries for safety. These proposals are costly, inhumane and ineffective. The government must provide safe passage for those crossing the Channel. Only then will the so-called ‘business model’ of people smugglers come to an end.

Signed, Border Criminologies