Outsourcing the asylum system: the Rwanda deportation scheme

Waiting for deportation: refugees in a detention centre. Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

On Tuesday 14 June, as many as 130 refugees were due to be flown to Rwanda on the first of many, highly controversial, planned flights which Boris Johnson had boasted could take “tens of thousands” of refugees who arrive in the UK by unauthorised means such as small boats. Following unsuccessful appeals to high court judges in the UK, the flight was cancelled at the eleventh hour after an injunction by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Priti Patel claimed that “preparation for the next flight begins now”, though it is uncertain what difference (if any) Johnson’s resignation will make to this.

Breaches of human rights

The Rwanda scheme has been widely condemned as inhumane by refugee groups, bishops and politicians, including Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi, who tweeted: “This proposal … is inhumane and shames our proud history as advocates of human rights and the refugee convention.” Even Prince Charles supposedly called the plans “appalling”. It is an extreme example of the hostile environment for refugees which I have previously written about.

At a legal level, the plan undermines the Refugee Convention and breaches human rights. In the week leading up to the proposed flight, the number of refugees due to fly was gradually reduced to seven after legal challenges under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, ‘the right to family life’, as well as trafficking and torture claims. A judicial review of the Rwanda policy was due to be heard by the high court in July, but has been postponed until the autumn.

The ECHR ruling was made “in the absence of any legally enforceable mechanism” to ensure the original claimant’s safe return to the UK if the judicial review is successful and “in light of the real risk that he would suffer treatment contrary to his human rights”.

By the same author:

The human cost

At an individual, human level, Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon highlights the personal tragedy behind every refugee’s attempt to reach the UK: “a harrowing story of upheaval, war, persecution … each one has a good reason to flee.” He argues that the Rwanda scheme is more extreme than the Australian equivalent, because it is “not merely offshoring, but outsourcing the entire delivery of our asylum system to another state”. 

The Refugee Council and other charities have warned of the “catastrophic impact” of deportation threats on the mental health and wellbeing of asylum seekers, with those due to be flown to Rwanda becoming highly distressed and suicidal. There are reports of self-harm and suicide attempts; one Afghan refugee said he would “rather die” than be sent to Rwanda and others are disappearing under the threat of deportation. 

No escape? Monitoring refugees in a detention centre. Michael Gaida from Pixabay.

Unreported aspects

A little-known and worrying aspect of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Rwanda is the agreement “to resettle a portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees in the United Kingdom” (para. 16). It is not clear what number “a portion” relates to. When Migration Watch’s president, Lord Green, asked for clarification in the House of Lords, the answer by Home Office minister Baroness Williams was “a small number”. Immigration advisors Free Movement state: “This raises the question of how we can be confident that Rwanda can care for vulnerable asylum seekers being sent from the UK.” 

Another barely reported plan which is only just coming to light is the preparation in Rwanda to house children who might be deported from the UK with other asylum seekers, despite previous denials that children would be involved. A government spokesperson said: “I think 90% of those coming across are men.” Despite such vague reassurances, these developments are highly disturbing. 

Dog whistle?

Johnson chose not to visit the facilities under preparation in Kigali while he was at the Commonwealth conference there. Instead, he has been busy blaming the cancelled Rwanda flight on “lefty lawyers … undermining everything that we are trying to do”. 

Conservative MPs have also used the ECHR intervention as an excuse to stir up hostility against Europe (again), even though the European Court is completely separate from the EU. Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey stated: “I think the British public will be surprised that we have European judges overruling British judges”, ignoring the UK’s major role in setting up the ECHR in 1950.

It is hard not to see these attacks on the legal profession and the ECHR as attempts to distract from Partygate, as well as inciting negative emotions about immigrants just before the two recent by-elections.

‘Subvertising’ against deportation flights, London Underground, 2018. Photo credit: Hogre. Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Crossing a red line

Perhaps the greatest concern is that this has given the government an excuse to threaten to leave the ECHR, scrap the Human Rights Act and promote their plans for a British Bill of Rights. Although the EU-UK trade agreement ‘locks in’ the UK to ECHR membership, this did not stop Conservative ministers from calling for the UK’s withdrawal from it after the ECHR intervention over the Rwandan flight. This would put the UK on the same footing as Russia, which has already withdrawn. 

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has since announced that the UK would not leave the ECHR. However, the new Bill of Rights would make the UK Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights issues and enable the UK to ignore certain rulings by the Strasbourg court; in Raab’s words, “curb abuses of the system”. This is heavily ironic, given the challenges to individual rights in recent legislation.

Given the long history of a ‘hostile environment’ to refugees in the UK, it is doubtful whether a forthcoming change of prime minister will make a great deal of difference to these plans. Future deportation flights would not only cross a humanitarian red line, but would open the door to further outsourcing and forced transportation of those fleeing persecution. We must continue to oppose these plans.


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