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UK deportations to Rwanda: What you need to know

Alexandria Williams
June 15, 2022

The British government signed an agreement with Rwanda to deport its asylum-seekers to the East African nation. DW explores the UK's controversial policy.

London | Protest in London
Image: Niklas HALLE'N/AFP

The UK is in alegal battleover its policy to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The first charter flight of deportees was set to depart on June 14. But the European Court of Human Rights intervened minutes before take off on the grounds that the plan came with a "real risk of irreversible harm."

The British government plans to challenge the decision and has made promises to pursue more flights. ''Preparation for the next flight begins now," Home Secretary Priti Patel said. 

Why is the UK sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda?

The UK hopes to deter irregular migration into the country.  The number of migrants that make the harrowing journey across the English Channel on small vessels is on the rise. Detected arrivals of this nature have increased from 229 in 2018 to over 28,000 last year, according to UK government figures.    

Rwanda is home to a growing number of refugees. The country built a transit center to host deported asylum-seekers in 2019 and hosts Libyan migrants who attempted journeys to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Last year, the Danish government signeda non-binding agreement with Rwanda to host their refugees as well.

Civil society groups appealed the agreement with Rwanda at London's High Court. The court threw out appeals from rights groups to stop the deportations , but consented to hearing more appeals before the flight.

UK set to fly first refugees to Rwanda

Why the first deportation flight failed

The UK Supreme Court refused to consider a last-ditch appeal on Tuesday. The European Court of Human Rights(ECHR) then stepped in and dealt with cases for each individual on the flight.

It ruled later on in that evening that an Iraqi man should not board the flight. This opened the door for other would-be deportees to win appeals.

UNHCR tells DW why it is opposed to the scheme

Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the UK, told DW that the UN agency strongly opposes implementing the policy.

"We consider it an outsourcing of the United Kingdom's international obligations, and we remain very concerned about the deal opposed to its implementation today," she said.

 The grounded Rwanda deportation flight
The flight was scheduled to depart on Tuesday eveningImage: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While the British government has maintained that the policy will help serve as a deterrent for people attempting the dangerous crossing across the English Channel, the UNHCR says "there's no evidence that this current policy is having that intended effect."

In the past, forced transfers against the will of asylum-seekers led to them not wanting to remain in the country they were sent to, Stubberfield said.

"That exposes them, in fact, to even more dangerous journeys and to further risks in future," she added.

Why is Rwanda taking asylum-seekers? 

Rwanda's leader, Paul Kagame, has aggressively pursued development since he took office 22 years ago. 

London gave Rwanda 120 million pounds ($148 million, €138 million) to support asylum-seekers deported under the agreement. 

The country is quickly becoming a regional tech hub, partnering with Google last year to develop digital training programs. Rwanda also unveiled a BioNTech-run domestic vaccine facility earlier this year.  

Despite rapid tech innovation, Rwanda is still densely populated with few major towns due to rolling hills that make up the country´s topography.  

Kagame still claims that the country is both welcoming and capable of hosting refugees. 

The East African nation aims to reach middle-income country status by 2025. However, Kagame's government has a poor track record for human rights and freedom of speech. Rwanda scored just 22 points out of 100 in the Freedom In The World 2022 report

What happens to deportees in Rwanda? 

Those set to arrive will be met with shelters around Rwanda´s capital, complete with private rooms, pools, and televisions, says AP.    

After arriving they must then apply for asylum in Rwanda.    

Refugees already settled in the country have expressed dissatisfaction with their conditions.

"I pray daily to God that I leave this place,'' said a 20-year-old Ethiopian refugee in Rwanda in an interview with AP.  

Others have been able to find gainful employment and a place in Rwandan society.  

eople walk on the road near Kibumba, north of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, as they flee fighting between Congolese forces and M23 rebels in North Kivu
Thousands have been displaced in Rwanda´s ongoing conflict with CongoImage: Moses Sawasawa/AP Photo/picture alliance

"They have a disease in the head and cannot settle here," said a 22-year-old from Ethiopia when asked about his friends' desire to further migrate to another country.  

What opponents to the agreement say

International rights groups claim that the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party is responsible for killing and disappearing opposition politicians, journalists, and activists.   

Rwanda is also embroiled in a 25-year-long dispute with neighboring Congo. Both countries accuse each other of firing artillery across their shared border. 

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, cites limited resources as a shortcoming in Rwanda's ability to host and process asylum claims. Britain is "exporting its responsibility to another country," Grandi said. 

Bishops from the Church of England also denounced the relocation plan in an open letter describing calling it an "immoral policy that shames Britain." 

Government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo defended the deal Tuesday, calling it "innovative" and a solution for a "broken global asylum system." 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech at Lydd Airport
Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubled down on the UKs support for the deportationImage: Matt Dunham/AP Photo/picture alliance

What the UK government says

London has also been steadfast in its decision to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

"We think it's a sensible partnership we've set up with Rwanda...it may take a while to get working properly, but that doesn't mean we're not going to keep going," Johnson told reporters on Tuesday. 

Johnson claims that the partnership will help dismantle criminal networks that smuggle migrants to the UK by waterways in exchange for cash.

Johnson told his Cabinet that the networks undermine "people's general acceptance of immigration,'' before a meeting in June. 

The legality of the deportation agreement will be challenged before British courts by the end of July. 

The UK's government has a track record of retroactively deporting those with an unclear immigration status. In April 2018, the UK threatened to deport those from the Windrush generation, who arrived in the country from the Caribbean in 1948 and 1971 to fill post-World War II labor shortages. 

ab, asw/rt (AFP, AP, Reuters)