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Human Rights Advocates Slam UK Move to Deport Asylum Seekers to Rwanda

LawHuman Rights Advocates Slam UK Move to Deport Asylum Seekers to Rwanda


Legal and human rights experts on Tuesday said the British Conservative Party’s decision to push through a bill allowing the government to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda — feffectively overriding last year’s Supreme Court ruling — represented a “desperate low” from lawmakers eager to exploit migrants ahead of elections expected later this year.

“A lot of this is performative cruelty,” Daniel Merriman, a lawyer whose clients have included some asylum-seekers whom the Tories tried to deport after it first introduced its plan in 2022, told NPR. “The elephant in the room is the upcoming election.”

After a prolonged debate, the unelected House of Lords cleared the way to pass the Safety of Rwanda bill early Tuesday morning, after dropping several proposed amendments including one that would have required independent verification that the central African country is a safe place to send migrants.

The House of Commons then passed the bill, and King Charles III is expected to formally approve the legislation in the coming days.

The bill requires courts and immigration officials to “conclusively treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country” to send asylum-seekers, even though the Supreme Court ruled in November that people deported to the country would face a significant risk of refoulement, or being sent back to the countries where they originally fled persecution or violence.

The Conservative government signed a treaty with Rwanda last December to strengthen protections for asylum-seekers, including a provision that partially bans Rwanda from sending people back to their home countries.

But the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on the U.K. to abandon the plan and instead “take practical measures to address irregular flows of refugees and migrants, based on international cooperation and respect for international human rights law.”

“The new legislation marks a further step away from the U.K.’s long tradition of providing refuge to those in need, in breach of the Refugee Convention,” said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. “Protecting refugees requires all countries — not just those neighboring crisis zones — to uphold their obligations. This arrangement seeks to shift responsibility for refugee protection, undermining international cooperation and setting a worrying global precedent.”

“The U.K. has a proud history of effective, independent judicial scrutiny,” Grandi added. “It can still take the right steps and put in place measures to help address the factors that drive people to leave home, and share responsibility for those in need of protection, with European and other international partners.”

Dorothy Guerrero, head of policy and advocacy at Global Justice Now, noted that “disastrous foreign and economic policies of successive governments have contributed to the need for people to seek refuge.”

“These same people’s lives are continually used as a political football, after years of being scapegoats for bad government decisions,” said Guerrero. “Statements from politicians are now even more blatantly devoid of any pretense of care for human rights. We will not stop pushing for a change of course, with safe routes to seek asylum in the U.K. so that people no longer have to risk their lives in the Channel.”

“The passing of the Rwanda Bill is a shameful day for the U.K.,” she added.

Hours after the legislation was passed, French officials announced that at least five people, including a seven-year-old child, had been killed while attempting to cross the English Channel, bound for the U.K. in an overloaded inflatable boat.

At The New Statesman, associate political editor Rachel Cunliffe wrote Tuesday that the tragedy reveals “the flaws of the Rwanda plan,” which proponents say could deter migrants from seeking refuge in Britain.

Proponents of the Rwanda plan will inevitably point to today’s disaster as further evidence that strong measures are needed to address the issue of Channel crossings. They will accuse Labour and opposition parties of ignoring the human cost of letting this crisis continue and argue that lives are at stake if the government does not act.

[…]

The reality is that a substantial number of people who pay people traffickers large sums of money to crowd them on to a tiny boat do so because they feel they have no other option. Fleeing war and persecution, they are desperate. And so they are prepared to take desperate measures. Measures that sometimes lead to tragedy, but which are deemed necessary given the hopelessness of their situation.

It is hard to see how the threat to send a tiny fraction of those who arrive (Rwanda has said it will only take 150-200 migrants) changes this calculation.

The Labour Party, which is leading Conservatives in polls ahead of the expected elections, has vowed to scrap the legislation if it wins control of the government later this year, and critics have expressed doubt that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will actually secure deportation flights before Britons vote.

One flight was grounded in June 2022 after the European Court of Human Rights intervened, and on Monday the OHCHR warned aviation authorities that they would risk violating international law if they allow “unlawful removals” of asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Critics have also pointed to a finding by the National Audit Office that the deportations would cost £1.8 million ($2.2 million) per person.

“The U.K. government could literally pay every refugee a £30,000 annual salary for life, and it would be cheaper than sending them to Rwanda,” said David Andress, a history professor at the University of Portsmouth. “We’re burning money just to enjoy the cruelty.”

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