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UK Rwanda Policy vs. International Law

Updated: May 7

After the House of Lords backed down on their amendments to the Rwanda bill last week, deportations to the East African country became much more of a reality.

After much delay, the Safety of Rwanda Act 2024 is attempting to take aim at the crossing of small boats and illegal migration in order for Rishi Sunak to fulfil his pledge to “stop small boats”.

The Rwanda Act includes provisions that allow for the removal of certain asylum seekers to Rwanda, intended to “prevent and deter unlawful migration”. The Act also attempts to counter the judgement made by the Supreme Court, which declared Rwanda was not a safe country for the asylum seekers to be removed to, via declaring Rwanda a safe country.

The Bill has been the subject of much criticism since the emergence of the policy, with this escalating to an open letter from numerous organisations, including the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, condemning the policy and pointing to the lack of public support for it. The letter also claims the policy, if carried out, will break international law.

Numerous articles refer to the Act potentially violating provisions of international law, but what does this actually mean?

International law works between states, covering both the relations between them and, keeps an eye on their conduct. The term is exceptionally broad, it covers areas such as human rights, refugees, sovereignty, and criminal law. Whilst some international law is customary, ie. not codified in written law, one of the largest sources of codified international law, via treaties, is the United Nations (UN).

Founded at the close of the Second World War, the UN is an international organisation with membership only open to states, with current membership sitting at 193, and the UK being a founding member. The UN has the expressed purpose of ensuring international peace and security, and the treaties it produces aim to fulfil this.

Before exploring the treaty provisions the Safety of Rwanda Act 2024 may break, it is important to establish how treaties create international law. Treaties from the UN are traditionally open for signature at the UN headquarters in New York for all UN member states. The treaty will lay out when the provisions within it come into force for a state party, and from that point on the treaty is law for that state - thus creating international law.

In 1951, the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (‘The Refugee Convention’) was adopted by the UN General Assembly and opened for signatures with the UK signing and ratifying the Convention by 1954. Therefore, the Refugee Convention creates legal obligations for the United Kingdom. Of particular relevance to the Rwanda Act is Article 33.

Article 33 of the Refugee Convention prohibits ‘refoulement’, preventing states parties from expelling or returning a refugee to somewhere within which their life or freedom could conceivably be in danger. You might be thinking at this point, yes this prevents the UK from sending refugees to dangerous countries, but is Rwanda dangerous?

According to a report from Amnesty International, Rwanda’s human rights record is questionable at best. In January 2023, when discussing refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the President of Rwanda said the country cannot be host to refugees for which they are later held accountable for. The desire not to be held accountable for refugees is already in itself a concern, however, this is not the only issue. There have been question raised over Rwanda’s attitude to the right to a fair trial, torture, the right to justice, and the right to a healthy environment.

Another damning report on the safety of Rwanda comes from the ‘Human Freedom Index’ in 2023, which is used to globally measure “personal, civil, and economic freedom”. The report ranked Rwanda 120th in the world for freedom. This once again raises questions on the safety of those who the government seeks to deport to Rwanda.

Between their human rights record and the Human Freedom Index, is Rwanda really a safe country for the UK to be sending asylum seekers to? With asylum seekers’ fundamental human rights and safety potentially in danger in Rwanda, the United Kingdom deporting immigrants there would be a prime example of ‘refoulement’ and a definite violation of international law.

The UK’s commitment to international law is hanging in the balance and the Government has a decision to make - What is more important to Rishi Sunak’s Government, political promises or the law?

Image: UK Home Office

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