In April 2022, the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership (also known as the Rwanda scheme) was signed. The purpose of the Agreement was to give the Rwandan government some responsibility for processing the claims of those seeking asylum in the UK; in exchange, the Rwandan government was to receive funding for relocating asylum seekers, as well as £120 million in development assistance.
A key part of the Partnership is that any asylum seeker processed by the Rwandan government will not be returned to the UK: instead, they are either settled in Rwanda or are removed to another country.
Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) finds this problematic for three key reasons.
Firstly, removing refugees to Rwanda will leave them vulnerable to Rwanda’s own hostile asylum and refugee system, one marked by historic human rights abuses.
Secondly, the incapacity and discrimination of Rwanda’s asylum system means that certain individuals sent there may not be granted asylum and could face deportation.
Thirdly, the prospects of removal for those who are not granted asylum in Rwanda risks further harm to an already vulnerable peoples.
At the same time, the Partnership represents the UK’s as-yet-unjustified deviation from the legally-binding 1951 Refugee Convention. It does so by externalising the handling of claims and protection of those entering its borders for the purpose of asylum.
It is essential, then, to both cancel the current plan and prevent similar policies in future.
To this end, this short briefing note hopes to remind Parliamentarians and the government of their obligations under the Refugee Convention.
So far, the implementation of the Rwanda scheme has been thwarted. In June 2023, the Court of Appeal held the Rwanda scheme to be unlawful. This was on the grounds that there was a real risk of Article 3 (Prohibition of Torture) of the European Convention on Human Rights being breached. The Court concluded that unless Rwanda’s ‘asylum system deficiencies’ were fixed, the Rwanda scheme would remain unlawful. Earlier this month, Home Office lawyers argued that the Rwanda scheme was lawful at the Supreme Court, urging them to overturn the earlier decision by the Court of Appeal. It is expected that a decision by the Supreme Court will be made later this year.
Key human rights concerns
Rwanda’s hostile asylum system:
- In 2018, police shot dead at least 12 Congolese refugees in western Rwanda, who were protesting reduced food allowances.
- The police also charged 63 protestors on the basis that they were responsible for organising and participating in illegal demonstrations, as well as ‘spreading false information’, with the goal of creating a ‘hostile international opinion against the government’.
- Rwanda’s National Commission for Human Rights, which has a history of covering up previous rights abuses committed by the Rwandan government, have yet to publish their findings into the killings.
- Anecdotal evidence from refugees in Rwanda describe instances of arbitrary detention, simply for returning to the camp at a late time.
- For some who entered Rwanda under its ‘Voluntary Departure’ agreement with Israel, upon arrival they were forced to remain in their accommodation and also prevented from applying for asylum.
Lacking capacity and discrimination in the Rwandan asylum system:
- There have been cases where Rwandan authorities have not provided a reason for rejecting an applicant’s asylum claim, which leaves some asylum seekers unable to effectively lodge an appeal.
- UNHCR has also noted lacking access to interpreters during the asylum process.
- The UNHCR has noted a particular trend: asylum seekers, from neighbouring countries to Rwanda and those from non-African countries, have faced high rates of rejection for asylum in Rwanda. For example, nationals from Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria have been rejected in 100% of cases.
- Human Rights Watch have also reported that individuals persecuted on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity have been denied asylum in Rwanda.
Removal of those not granted asylum in Rwanda:
- There have been several instances where asylum seekers in Rwanda have been denied the opportunity to appeal rejected asylum claims and have been deported, or have faced threats of deportation, back to their countries of origin (known as ‘chain refoulement’). For example, Rwanda was responsible for the chain refoulement of Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers in 2022.
- There have been reports of asylum seekers being forced out of Rwanda and into countries where they have faced further abuses, namely Libya. Here, asylum seekers have faced arbitrary detention, torture, and rape at the hands of authorities.
The above highlights how Rwanda’s approach to asylum has come at the expense of certain human rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These rights violated include:
- Right to life (Article 3)
- Freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 9)
- Right to seek and enjoy asylum (Article 14)
- Freedom of expression (Article 19)
- Freedom of assembly (Article 20)
AOAV believes there is a need for Parliamentarians to amplify these potential abuses in order to bring about an end to the Rwanda scheme.
Parliamentarians should also raise these issues to encourage the UK government, through diplomatic avenues, to urge the Rwandan government to implement measures that prevent further abuses of a similar nature and provide reparations to the victims of its own hostile asylum system.
Even if the Rwanda plan is successfully reversed, this does not mean that the UK should abdicate from encouraging fair treatment of refugees in Rwanda, and elsewhere.
Potential policy options
Universal Periodic Review (UPR):
One policy tool that Parliamentarians could encourage the UK government to use, to guide Rwanda to improve its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, is Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This is a mechanism that allows Member States of the Human Rights Council to undertake peer-reviews of each other’s human rights records and make recommendations on improvements.
When Rwanda has been under review (2015 and 2020), they accepted a majority of recommendations made to them. In 2015, they accepted 152/229 recommendations; in 2020, they accepted 160/284.
This shows that UPR is, to an extent, a suitable mechanism for encouraging the Rwandan government to take necessary steps to improve its human rights.
Whether these accepted recommendations were then implemented remains a different matter, of course.
AOAV’s policy recommendations
1. Parliamentarians, by raising issues surrounding Rwanda’s treatment of refugees (as discussed above), should call on the government to cancel the Rwanda scheme.
2. To hold the UK government accountable, both Members of Parliament and Lords, in their respective Home Affairs select committees, should establish new sub-committees that can measure and determine the extent to which the government is fulfilling its obligations under international refugee law. Aspects of international refugee law that government proposals and current legislation could be measured against may include, for example, whether the proposal/legislation carries the risk of refoulement.
3. Parliamentarians should encourage the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), through the UK Mission in Geneva, to utilise UPR, in order to make recommendations to the Rwandan government on how to improve their treatment of refugees. Parliamentarians should urge the FCDO to make specific recommendations for the Rwandan government to do the following:
- Establish a tribunal that appropriately remedies refugees who were subject to various abuses during the 2018 protests.
- Take steps to ensure that attempts to seek asylum are unimpeded.
- Take steps to ensure refugees are not subject to arbitrary detention.
- Ensure those whose asylum applications are rejected are provided with humanitarian protection and are not threatened with deportation.
In conclusion, AOAV believes the current scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda from the UK is unethical and contrary to the claims of the UK as a supporter of human rights globally. We urge Parliamentarians to put an end to this idea.
As Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, notes: “While we recognise the importance of addressing migration challenges, the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership must be reconsidered in light of the alarming human rights concerns in Rwanda’s asylum system. Ensuring the safety and protection of asylum seekers should be paramount, and we urge a thoughtful reevaluation of this scheme.”
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