By John Ikani
Plans to send some asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda are a breach of international law, the UN’s refugee agency has said.
Home Secretary Priti Patel this week signed a deal with the East African country to fly some people who illegally arrive in the UK there to seek asylum instead.
Some 562 people on 14 boats made the journey on the day the new scheme was announced, according to the Ministry of Defence. No-one making the crossing was believed to have arrived on UK soil “on their own terms”, it added.
Last year, 28,526 people made the crossing, up from 8,404 in 2020.
Ministers insisted on Friday that the scheme would save money in the “longer term”, despite a reported cost of up to £30,000 per person.
But Gillian Triggs, the assistant high commissioner at the UNHCR, said the proposed arrangement would only accommodate a few hundred people a year, making it extremely expensive as well as illegal and discriminatory.
Triggs accused the UK of “attempting to shift its burden to a developing country” and warned that the arrangement signed off by Patel “would not comply with the UK’s international legal responsibilities”, adding: “All the indications are that it will be unworkable.”
Triggs continued: “We want to end the vulnerability of people on the move to people-trafficking and of course we want to stop people drowning, but we strongly disagree with victimising the very people who need protection. There should instead be an increase in legal pathways to the UK.”
The proposals seemed designed to appeal to anti-migrant sentiment in the UK, she suggested.
“We are a politically neutral, humanitarian body – it’s not really for me to comment on the politics,” Triggs said.
“But we are in an environment in which populist governments will appeal to their rightwing, anti-migrant sentiment and this would presumably be part of that.”
More than 160 charities and campaign groups have urged the government to scrap the plan, while opposition parties and some Conservatives have also criticised the policy.
A number of lawyers have warned the plan will face legal obstacles, such as the international human rights principle of “non-refoulement” – which guarantees no one can be returned to a country where they would face irreparable harm.
Last year, the UK government raised concerns at the UN about allegations of “extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture” in Rwanda, as well as restrictions to civil and political rights.
But justice and migration minister Tom Pursglove said Rwanda was a progressive country that wanted to provide sanctuary and had made “huge strides forward” in the past three decades.