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The UK-Rwanda Partnership: a timeline

It’s been five months since news of the plan to deport some people seeking asylum who arrive in the UK via the Channel to Rwanda – five months of fear and fury, legal challenges, newspaper smears, and misreporting of the facts. 

But ever since rumours were heard in April that a plan was in the works to carry out this “offshore processing”, not a single person has actually been deported to the east African country – with some expressing doubts that they ever will be.

Action On Armed Violence (AOAV), with the Byline Intelligence Team, has put together a timeline of the policy, the international response, and the uncertainty of its future. 

The Beginning of the Policy

On 5 April 2022, news broke that then Prime Minister Boris Johnson was set to announce a new immigration plan to tackle Channel crossings, which were set to reach record levels this year. The Times reported that the plan would involve the deportation of migrant people to Rwanda. Nine days later this was confirmed

Initially, those reporting on the story assumed the policy was to mirror that of Australia – offshore processing where migrant people would be held in detention in Rwanda while their asylum applications were being processed, before returning to the UK.

However, Byline Times journalists quickly realised that this was not the case. Studying the Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) between the UK and Rwandan Governments showed that, rather than offshore processing, the policy plan was for people to be deported to Rwanda where they could then claim asylum and live as a refugee. There would be no route back to the UK. 

The policy, of course, began before the announcement. As early as September 2020, the Government had been drawing up a shortlist of countries to agree a deal with on migration. Last February, a list of seven had been agreed, with Rwanda failing to make the cut.

The following month, Downing Street’s policy unit pushed the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to “look again at the viability of” Rwanda and other countries which had not made the final shortlist. The FCDO responded: “We had previously ruled all these countries out on political and/or legal grounds. We see little reason to change that.”

By April this year, however, the deal with Rwanda was signed and announced.

Opposition Mounts

Almost immediately, migrant and refugee rights activists and agencies expressed their concern about the policy of outsourcing the UK asylum system to Rwanda. 

The United Nations Refugee Agency – the UNHCR – released a statement on the day the MOU was published, saying it had not been consulted on the negotiations and stating its opposition to “arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards”.

In Rwanda, Leader of the Opposition Victoire Ingabire openly criticised the plan, saying that her country should not be dealing with a British migration backlog, when the population faces other important issues.

Meanwhile, letters from Home Office Under Secretary Matthew Rycroft – reported by the Guardian three days after the announcement – expressed reservations that the policy would not be value for money for the UK taxpayer, due to the uncertain evidence that it would act as a deterrent to people crossing the Channel. 

Humanitarian opposition came from the very top in the UK, with both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prince of Wales weighing in. In June, during a visit to Rwanda, Prince Charles privately remarked that the Government’s approach to immigration was “appalling”. 

Opposition MPs in the UK took to the airwaves and the House of Commons to air their criticisms of the policy.

On 15 June 2022, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper called the scheme “a shambles and shameful”, while raising concerns about the human rights of refugees in Rwanda. She was joined by her colleague Stephen Kinnock, Shadow Immigration Minister, who described the plan as “unworkable” on Sky News.

Will It Work?

Much of the criticism that followed the MOU’s announcement focused on the human rights implications of the policy, not least at Byline Times, where we looked at the impact on LGBTIQ refugees and the wider human rights picture in the country. 

But the policy also faced immediate criticism as to whether it would be effective. 

On 2 May, a survey conducted by the NGO Care4Calais revealed that the scheme’s announcement had done little to dissuade people from making the dangerous journey to the French Coast and then across the Channel.

Migrant people the group spoke to said they would still try to come to the UK despite the threat that arriving via the Channel could lead to them being deported to Rwanda. That day, 250 people attempted the crossing – by August it hit 1,300 in one day.

Then, news broke that Rwanda would only accept around 300 migrant people a year – despite Johnson earlier boasting that tens of thousands would be sent to east Africa due there being no cap on the numbers which could be deported. 

The Home Office has denied there is a cap on the number of migrant people who could be deported.

The Planned Flight

Criticism turned into legal challenges when the Home Office announced the first deportation flight would take place on 14 June. 

The announcement came a month before, on 15 May, with Boris Johnson saying that 50 migrant people would be deported, with those selected for the flight given seven to 14 days to lodge objections. Johnson said the Government would “dig in for the fight” and oppose “leftie lawyers” seeking to prevent the flight from taking off.  

The PCS Union was joined by Detention Action, Care4Calais and four people seeking asylum in a legal challenge that demanded a last-minute injunction to prevent the flight from taking off.

Three days before the flight was set to take off, the High Court found in favour of the Government, but this was reversed by the European Court of Human Rights at 7.30pm on 14 June. By this point, those who were going to be deported had already been taken onto the plane. They were returned to detention and eventually all the removal orders were scrapped. 

On 11 June, the Guardian reported that the Home Office had misled people seeking asylum about its Rwanda plan. They had informed migrant people that the UNHCR was involved in the scheme – something which UNHCR lawyers said was “inaccurate”. 

A month earlier, the Byline Intelligence Team had reported how Freedom of Information requests had cast doubts over then Home Secretary Priti Patel’s claims that the European Union had resettled migrant people in Rwanda. 

What Next?

On 19 July this year, court papers revealed that the FCDO had voiced its opposition to the Rwanda scheme on human rights grounds. 

Britain’s High Commissioner had warned against removing migrant people due to concerns that Rwanda had a record of coercing refugees into the army. The court papers also highlighted how Rwanda was initially excluded from the shortlist of countries selected for a migrant deportation agreement, due to its poor human rights record. 

Home Office documents revealed how, the day before the MOU was signed, the policy was described as unenforceable and prone to fraud – specifically in reference to the £120 million invested into Rwanda as part of the deal.

But, despite opposition from within the Government, the Opposition, people in Rwanda, the UN and from migrant rights groups, the policy marches on. New Prime Minister Liz Truss has said she is committed to continuing and even expanding the scheme.

A day after her hardline approach was cheered by the Conservative Party membership, on 25 July, MPs from Parliament’s Human Rights Committee wrote a letter to Patel stating the committee is “unconvinced that the Rwanda plan is an appropriate, or indeed effective way to achieve the Government’s aims”. 

Now, a second flight is planned for September, although a date is yet to be determined.

A Government spokesperson said: “Our thorough assessments found that Rwanda is fundamentally a safe and secure country with a strong track record of supporting asylum seekers.”