Britain’s plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda arouses indignation

LONDON (AP) – Britain’s Conservative government has reached an agreement with Rwanda to send some asylum seekers thousands of kilometers away to the East African country, a move that opposition politicians and refugee groups condemned as inhumane, useless and a waste of public money.

Interior Minister Priti Patel visited Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, on Thursday to sign what the two countries called an “economic development partnership”. The plan will see some people arriving in the UK as blind passengers on trucks or in small boats across the English Channel, picked up by the British government and flown 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) to Rwanda, apparently forever.

Migrants have long used northern France as a starting point to reach Britain, either by hiding on trucks or ferries, or – increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic closed other routes in 2020 – in dinghies and other small boats organized by smugglers. More than 28,000 people entered the UK on small boats last year, up from 8,500 by 2020. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said action was needed to stop “disgusting human traffickers (who) abuse the vulnerable and turn the Channel into a watery cemetery.”

In a speech near the Channel Coast, Johnson said “anyone entering the UK illegally … can now be relocated to Rwanda.”

The Rwandan government said the agreement would initially last for five years and Britain had paid £ 120 million ($ 158 million) in advance to pay for housing and integrate the migrants.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta said the agreement “is about ensuring that people are protected, respected and empowered to advance their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they so choose.”

He said his country is already home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries including Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.

Johnson denied that the plan “lacked compassion” but acknowledged that it would inevitably face legal challenges and would not take effect immediately.

Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, and competition for land and resources there fueled decades of ethnic and political tensions, culminating in the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutus trying to protect them were killed. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized President Paul Kagame’s current government for being oppressive.

Johnson, however, insisted that Rwanda had “totally transformed” in the last two decades.

Britain says relocation decisions will not be based on migrants’ country of origin, but on whether they used “illegal or dangerous routes” to reach Britain from a safe country like France. Not all such arrivals will be considered suitable for dispatch to Rwanda; it was unclear what the criteria for making the decisions would be.

Past policies to send refugee applicants 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 small atoll of Nauru, promising that no one would be allowed to settle in Australia. The policy almost ended the human-smuggled ocean route from Southeast Asia, but was widely criticized as a cruel repeal of Australia’s international obligations.

Israel sent thousands of people to Rwanda and Uganda under a controversial and secretive “voluntary” scheme between 2014 and 2017. Few are believed to have stayed where many tried to reach Europe.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of refugee affairs at Amnesty International UK, said the British government’s “shockingly ill-conceived idea would go much further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money.”

The executive director of the British Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, called it “dangerous, cruel and inhuman”.

Rwandan opposition figure Victoire Ingabire told the AP that her government’s decision to accept migrants was questionable as the country is also a source of refugees.

“Rwanda has consistently ranked (as) one of the world’s safest nations, but at the same time consistently a country where its people are dissatisfied,” she said.

The British and French governments have been working for years to stop travel across the Channel, without much success, and have often exchanged accusations as to who is to blame for the failure.

The UK Conservative government has put forward proposals that are not all feasible, including building a wave machine in the canal to propel boats back. Johnson said Thursday that the Royal Navy would take responsibility for responding to crossings of small boats, but that the idea of ​​pushing ships back towards France had been dismissed as too dangerous.

Several previously proposed sites for Britain to send migrants to – including the remote Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar – were rejected, at times angrily, by the nations concerned.

The Rwanda plan faces obstacles both in the UK Parliament and in the courts. Johnson’s Conservative government has introduced a tough new immigration law that will make it harder for people entering the country by unauthorized routes to seek asylum and will allow asylum seekers to be screened abroad. It has not yet been approved by Parliament, and the House of Lords seeks to dilute some of its most draconian provisions.

Opposition politicians accused the government of trying to distract attention from a scandal involving government parties that broke pandemic lockdown rules. Johnson opposes calls to resign after being fined by police over the parties.

Labor lawmaker Lucy Powell said the Rwanda plan might please some conservative supporters and make headlines, but it was “unworkable, costly and unethical.”

“I think it’s less about handling small boats and more about dealing with the Prime Minister’s own sinking boat,” Powell told the BBC.

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Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda and Andy Meldrum in Johannesburg, South Africa contributed to this story.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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