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UK-Rwanda Plan: It’s Time to Reassess

Updated: May 23

Boris Johnson first announced the 'Rwanda plan' in April of 2022, but talks within government started at least a year prior. Since it has been the controversial heart of the immigration debate, sustained by wavering support in parliament. The partnership would relocate asylum seekers with what the UK deems 'inadmissible' cases to Rwanda for processing. Even if their claims are successful, they cannot return to the UK. There have been national and international concerns about not just the legality and morality of the policy but also about how much it will actually cost and whether it will work. 

Opposition to the policy has been copious. The first flight, set to take off back in 2022, was grounded by a European Court of Human Rights decision. More recently, in November, the UK Supreme Court found parts of the Rwanda policy to be unlawful. They concluded Rwanda was not a 'safe country', mainly for the risk that it would not adjudicate asylum cases properly and therefore poses a risk of refoulement, the return of refugees to places where they are likely to be persecuted. The UNHCR claimed the policy would 'risk the arbitrary denial of access to asylum', as well as 'undermine the established international refugee protection system'. 

This week, the House of Commons approved legislation declaring Rwanda a safe destination. The bill proudly declared the ability to disapply relevant sections of the Human Rights Act to prevent courts from reviewing the policy. This comes in retaliation to the continuing 'threat of Strasbourg' and courts at home. Ministers have previously stated that if legal challenges continue, withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is not off the table.

Whilst this could be seen as a reassertion of the UK's sovereignty, it raises credible concerns about the UK's international standing and power if it were to withdraw from the ECHR. As the Human Rights Act (1998) partially integrates the ECHR into UK law, there could be substantial impacts on the whole of the UK judicial system. 

Rubin Italia, a solicitor at Stokoe Partnership, asserts the risk of undermining the UK's role in human rights issues whilst domestically limiting lawyers' ability to challenge the government and represent their clients legally. 

UK officials have raised concerns regarding Rwanda since 2021, where they were shared in court documents submitted by the government. The UK High Commissioner to Rwanda said it had been accused of using 'refugee camps as recruitment hubs for Rwandan military operations' and had been identified as one of the 14 countries that presented substantial human rights issues. And it doesn't seem there has been much headway made since. 

Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, said, "The home secretary has complete disregard for the lives of people who have already experienced unimaginable trauma". Given the myriad credible concerns raised internally, it is difficult to disagree with her. 

Despite the morally distasteful and legally questionable policy, we need to assess whether it will actually achieve what it hopes.

Despite the UK government paying £240 million to Rwanda (with another £50 million pledged), no has been sent to Rwanda yet, and the gross cost of the policy is unknown. Meg Hiller, chair of the public accounts committee, has described the lack of payment disclosures as 'something cloak and dagger behind the scenes'. Even more disconcertingly, UK officials deemed there to be a 'very high' risk of fraud with the initial money sent to Rwanda.

The Minister for Legal Migration, Tom Pursglove, called it an 'investment' as it would save money on the cost of housing asylum seekers here in the UK. On the contrary, the Home Office estimated the cost of sending a refugee to a safe country (not necessarily Rwanda) is £169,000, compared to £106,000 if they were to remain in the UK. 

There are other concerns voiced from within the Conservative party where MPs pointed to the government's own legal advice that suggested there was a 50% chance of flights taking off considering the threat from Strasbourg. Furthermore, Rwanda only has the initial capacity to take 200 asylum seekers from the UK.

The government has estimated that to 'break-even' on the plan, it would need to deter almost 2 in 5 people who arrive on small boats. Of the nearly 46,000 people who crossed the English Channel last year in small boats, that's 18,400 people the Rwanda policy would have to deter.

Granted this isn't the UK government's only plan to deal with immigration, but ultimately, the goal of sending people to Rwanda is to save the UK money and 'stop the boats'.

Undeniably, something needs to be done about both immigration and the financial black hole it has become. But, with £240 million already spent, vague economic estimates, moral quandaries, and uncertain legal prospects, it might be time to reassess.

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