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The government’s Rwanda asylum seeker plan won't work 

The Home Office has not made the case for relocating migrants to Rwanda or shown that it has learnt the lessons of Windrush

The Home Office has not made the case for relocating migrants to Rwanda or shown that it has learnt the lessons of Windrush, argues Rhys Clyne 

The government’s proposal to relocate migrants to Rwanda for processing and potential settlement appears to have three aims: to prevent illegal immigrants from settling in the UK; to deter people from attempting to cross the Channel in small boats; and to tackle criminal gangs who run human trafficking operations. The home secretary is right to want to get to grips with the asylum system and, particularly, to tackle the appalling scenes in the Channel, but this plan falls far short of making the case for offshore processing as a solution. 

Australia’s offshore processing of migrants did not work in the first instance  

Analysis by the Refugee Council found that most people arriving in the UK on small boats are likely to have valid claims to asylum, casting doubt on the government’s argument that most or all arrivals are, or should be considered under the Nationality and Borders Bill, illegal immigrants. [1] 

Nor is it clear this approach would deter people from attempting to cross the Channel. Evidence from Australia’s 2012 scheme for offshore processing of migrants shows that it preceded a sizeable increase in the number of people attempting to enter the country via illegal boat routes. [2Only once a range of other measures were introduced, including turning boats back at sea, did the number of people arriving start to fall. The prime minister rightly recognised in his speech the safety and legal problems of turning boats in the English Channel, and it is therefore not at all clear that offshore processing will act as a sufficient deterrent.  

Even if some crossings are deterred, the effect would be limited to those likely to be processed in Rwanda. Others more likely to end up in the UK, presumably vulnerable women and children, would continue to make the same trip.  

The government should put more resource into finding and prosecuting the organisers of human trafficking operations. But the case for offshoring migrants abroad has not been made on the grounds of preventing illegal immigration or deterring crossings.  

Relocating people to Rwanda could breach the UK’s international obligations  

The prime minister is “confident that our new Migration Partnership is fully compliant with our international legal obligations”, but he has not backed up that claim, especially regarding the UK’s responsibilities to protect human rights.  

The European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to life and freedom from torture and discrimination. The International Maritime Organization’s International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue also obliges the UK to deliver people rescued at sea to a “place of safety”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has already warned that arrangements in the Nationality and Borders Bill for extraterritorial processing “would be in breach of the UK’s international obligations”. [3]

Given the UK government raised concerns about Rwandan human rights at the UN last year, it is necessary for the prime minister to explain why he believes Rwanda is “one of the safest countries in the world”, as he argued in his speech.  

The Home Office needs to learn the lessons of Windrush 

The Home Office should be especially concerned with upholding the UK’s obligations to protect human rights in light of the findings of Wendy Williams’ Windrush Lessons Learned Review, which stressed the importance of a compassionate, humane approach to the department’s services and highlighted the failings of the Home Office to the Windrush generation. The Williams Review also highlighted the failure of the Home Office to adequately evaluate the impact policy decisions would have on particular communities, and the gap between policy making in the department and the practicalities of implementation on the frontline.  

But the Home Office risks repeating the same mistakes. The documentation published today, including its Memorandum of Understanding with the Rwandan government, includes little detail about how the department will put the scheme into practice and manage it safely. It is unclear how the UK will decide which individuals to relocate to Rwanda, given demand is likely to immediately outstrip the capacity of the scheme. And it is equally unclear how the Home Office will ensure the ongoing safety of those relocated, beyond a vague commitment to create an independent monitoring committee.  

Nor has the Home Office explained how the scheme will avoid unfeasible costs and poor value for money. The equivalent Australian schemes in Nauru and Papua New Guinea cost approximately £600m per year to process 300 people. A similar Australian scheme to resettle migrants in Cambodia cost around £30m to successfully resettle just two people. There are no answers as to how the £120m trial announced today will lead to the “tens of thousands” of people being settled in Rwanda in the years ahead or how, in the short term, it will handle the hundreds of people arriving in the UK by small boat each day.    

“If not this, then what?” is insufficient justification for the scheme. For this to be more than short term political red meat to show government activity on this hardest of subjects, the Home Office must now prove that it has learned from its handling of Windrush, work through the implications of this approach and demonstrate in detail how it could work – safely and humanely – in practice. The problem is, from what we know of similar schemes elsewhere and the costs involved, this approach is not going to work, and the government will waste a lot of public money finding that out.  

  1. Refugee Council Briefing, An analysis of Channel crossings & asylum outcomes, November 2021  

  2. Oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on channel crossings, migration and asylum-seeking routes through the EU, November 2020  

  3. UNHCR Observations on the Nationality and Borders Bill, October 2021  

Johnson government
Home Office
Institute for Government

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