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Q&A: The UK’s policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

10 Jun 2022

By Peter William Walsh

On 14 April 2022, the UK government officially announced that it is going to send people who arrive in the UK to seek asylum to the Republic of Rwanda.

In a speech introducing the policy – known formally as the Migration and Economic Development Partnership – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that, “anyone entering the UK illegally – as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1st – may now be relocated to Rwanda.”

Under the scheme, the UK’s legal responsibilities for such people would end once they have been relocated to the east African country. They will not be able to apply for asylum in the UK. Instead, they will be able to apply for asylum in Rwanda and have their claims processed there, within Rwanda’s asylum system. If such asylum applicants are successful, they will be offered protection in Rwanda, with no option to return to the UK.

This commentary answers some common questions about the Rwanda asylum policy and its implications:

What has been announced?

According to the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Rwanda that outlines the policy, the UK will hand over responsibility to Rwanda for some people seeking asylum in the UK.

Government policy states that removals to Rwanda, “are intended to deter people from making dangerous journeys to the UK to claim asylum, which are facilitated by criminal smugglers, when they have already travelled through safe third countries” (p. 6).

Once transferred to Rwanda, people will have the option to claim asylum, with the Rwandan government assuming responsibility for processing their asylum claims. Crucially, if these people decide to claim asylum in Rwanda and are successful in their claim, they will be offered protection in Rwanda, and will not be brought back to the UK. Those who are not given an asylum-related status may be removed to a country in which they have a right to reside, or given immigration status in Rwanda.

The arrangement has been described to the BBC as a “pilot” or “trial”. According to the MoU, the agreement will last for five years, with the possibility for extension.

There is no cap on the number of people who will be transferred. However, initial news reports suggested that the Rwandan facility currently has the capacity to house around 100 people at once and process the claims of up to 500 occupants per year. This is consistent with the recent capacity of Rwanda’s asylum system to process individual claims. The Home Office’s May 2022 review of Rwanda’s asylum system shows that in 2020, the country made 228 decisions on asylum claims. In the same year, the UK made around 19,000 asylum decisions.

The Memorandum of Understanding says that the UK will perform “without delay” an initial screening of asylum seekers in the UK, to determine whether it is appropriate for the individual to be relocated to Rwanda. The Home Office states that, “Decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis, and nobody will be removed if it is unsafe or inappropriate for them”. The UK government will provide Rwanda with the basic details of each person it wishes to transfer, with Rwanda needing to approve the transfer request for each individual the UK government wishes to relocate.

According to the agreement, after arriving in Rwanda, each person who claims asylum will be given accommodation and support, and would be free to leave and return to their accommodation at any time. There is nothing in the Memorandum of Understanding to prevent people from leaving Rwanda, including to continue an asylum-seeking journey. When Israel deployed a similar policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda (see below), it was reported that the UN Refugee Agency office in Kigali said that of the thousands sent to Rwanda, they knew of just nine who had remained in the country.

Who can be sent to Rwanda?

The government’s guidance states (p. 12) that asylum applicants may be eligible for removal to Rwanda if the government determines that they were previously present in or had a connection to another country in which they could have claimed asylum, if their “journey to the UK can be described as having been dangerous”, and if they travelled on or after 1 January 2022. It states that a “dangerous journey is one able or likely to cause harm or injury. For example, this would include those that travel via small boat, or clandestinely in lorries.”

If people meet these criteria, then anyone, of any age, can be relocated, with two exceptions: Rwandan nationals, and unaccompanied asylum seeking children (known as UASC).

On 9 May 2022, the Home Office published its Equality Impact Assessment of the Rwanda policy, which gives details on who can be sent to Rwanda. The Equality Impact Assessment states that, “Excluding UASC, people of all ages are potentially eligible for relocation. At least initially, families with children will only be relocated voluntarily as part of family groups”. Thus, for the time being, children will not be sent to Rwanda on their own, and families will not be separated by sending only some family members to Rwanda but not others.

There are no exemptions for people based on disability, pregnancy status, sexuality, or gender re-assignment status. However, the document notes that, “An individualised assessment of suitability for relocation will be undertaken for each individual”, and that disability, maternity or pregnancy, sexuality, and gender-reassignment will be “taken into account” in any relocation decision.

Because of non-refoulement – the core Refugee Convention principle that forbids countries from returning people to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened – Rwandan nationals would not in principle be returned to Rwanda. In evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 11 May 2022, a Home Office official stated that, “The only preclusion on nationality to transfer is if you are Rwandan […] Any other nationality does.”

Early discussions of the Rwanda policy focused on young single men as its likely target group. For example, a BBC report suggested that the policy would “focus mainly on single men arriving in the UK illegally in small boats and lorries.” In his speech announcing the policy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that “around seven out of 10 of those arriving in small boats last year were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees”. The implication that asylum seekers being young and male means they are less likely to be ‘genuine’ refugees has been echoed by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who stated to Parliament in November 2021 that, “in the last 12 months alone, 70% of the individuals who have come to our country illegally via small boats are single men, who are effectively economic migrants. They are not genuine asylum seekers. These are the ones who are elbowing out the women and children, who are at risk and fleeing persecution.”

Government documents do not state that single men are an explicit focus of the policy. However, the Equality Impact Assessment notes that because large majorities of people arriving via small boat are both young (p. 6) and male (pp. 9–10) – in 2021, 75% of all small boat arrivals were adult males aged 18 to 39 – the policy is likely to disproportionately target young men.

The data for 2021 do not support the claim that young, male asylum seekers are not genuine refugees.  Although there are no data currently available on whether male asylum applicants in the UK are single or not, in 2021, of all initial decisions made by the Home Office on the asylum claims of male main applicants aged 18–29, 73% were successful (i.e., they resulted in a grant of asylum or other permission to stay). This compares to 81% of women applicants (Figure 1). Initial grant rates (i.e. not accounting for the increase in the success rate after appeal) have fluctuated over time (Figure 1).

Figure 1

An important factor that affects the share of female refugees in the UK is that men whose asylum claims are successful will go on to be joined by their female partners through refugee family reunion (see our briefing on Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK). From 2011 to 2020, 80% of adults receiving refugee family reunion visas were women. As a result, after accounting for family reunion, the overall gender balance of those granted protection evens out over time: from 2011 to 2020, among adult applicants, 55% of those granted status under the combined routes of asylum and refugee family reunion were men (Table 1). Note that these figures exclude asylum applicants who are initially refused but are successful on appeal, as the immigration statistics do not include a gender breakdown for this group.

Table 1

Adult asylum grants, resettlement and refugee family reunion by gender, 2011-2020, annual average

 MenWomen% men
Successful asylum applicants (initial decision only)4,7102,46566%
Refugee family reunion visas granted4361,76320%
Asylum initial grants + refugee family reunion5,1454,22855%
Resettled refugees68478247%
Source: Migration Observatory analysis of Home Office immigration statistics, Table Asy_D02 and Fam_D01. Note: excludes children under age 18; positive decisions include grants of asylum and grants of other leave. Grants of asylum include main applicants and dependants.

 

Will the policy deter unauthorised arrivals?

The government has stated that the aim of the policy is to “tackle illegal migration, control our borders and crack down on the criminal gangs exploiting this international crisis”, making specific reference to “migrants who make dangerous or illegal journeys, such as by small boat or hidden in lorries”. The government has suggested that sending people to Rwanda will deter unauthorised arrivals.

There is a high degree of uncertainty about whether it will be successful in this aim, because there is little evidence on whether it will or will not deter unauthorised entry, including by people travelling across the Channel via small boat.

The Home Office’s Permanent Secretary, the department’s most senior civil servant, wrote in a 13 April letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel that, “Evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain and cannot be quantified with sufficient certainty to provide me with the necessary level of assurance over [the policy’s] value for money.” In other words, because there can be no evidence-based argument that the policy will deter irregular arrivals, it is impossible to conclude that it will be cost-effective.

If only a few hundred asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda each year (as suggested by the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Home Office’s modelling) and unauthorised arrivals continue at rates similar to those seen in 2021 (when around 29,000 people crossed the English Channel in small boats), then the probability of a Channel crosser being sent to Rwanda would be small – around 1–2%. This raises the question about how high the likelihood of removal to Rwanda would have to be in order to dissuade irregular entry to the UK.

How much will the scheme cost?

The ultimate cost of the policy is not yet known.

The Home Secretary has said that the government will send an initial £120 million up-front to Rwanda to set up the scheme. However, the policy’s ultimate financial cost will be greater because it will also include per-person operational costs. As the policy announcement states, “Funding will also be provided to support the delivery of asylum operations, accommodation and integration, similar to the costs incurred in the UK for these services.” In remarks to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Tom Pursglove, the Home Office’s Minister for Justice and Tackling Illegal Immigration, stated that, “The approximate figure for processing a case within our asylum system is around £12,000 per individual… we will make contributions to the Rwandan Government similar to those that we are spending on processing claims here in the United Kingdom… we will be paying sums of money that are similar to what it would cost us to deal with those cases within our asylum system”. Pursglove’s figure is consistent with Home Office data that suggest that the total cost of running the asylum system in the financial year 2020/21 was around £1.36 billion, with around 115,000 people with pending asylum cases (£1.36 billion divided by 115,000 = £11,800 per person).

In addition to the cost paid to Rwanda, there will also be costs associated with the initial screening of applications in the UK and carrying out removals to Rwanda. Enforced removals are more expensive than voluntary ones. The Home Office estimated in 2013 that the average cost of an enforced removal was £15,000, with the per-person removal cost of enforced removals having been estimated to be between five and fifteen times greater than voluntary departures. FOI data provide a snapshot of the costs of charter flights in Q4 2021 (1 October to 31 December), upon which the UK government increasingly relies for its removals. These data show that the 16 charter flights that quarter carried around 320 passengers and cost around £2.5 million, which does not include any prior detention costs or the cost of escorts. This is an average of £165,000 per flight, or £7,800 per-person.

Is it legal?

The Home Office argues that the Rwanda policy is legal, stating that: “Everything we are doing is compliant with our legal and international obligations.”

However, the Memorandum of Understanding makes specific provision for the successful legal challenge of the agreement (paragraph 23.2). And in his speech announcing the policy, the Prime Minister said that, “We are confident that our new Migration Partnership is fully compliant with our international legal obligations, but nevertheless we expect this will be challenged in the courts…”.

The UN Refugee Agency said in a legal analysis that the Rwanda policy is “incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Convention”.

Ultimately, the policy’s legality will be for judges to decide, in response to legal challenges – with some already underway.

Some of the criticisms raised against the Rwanda deal concern the country’s human rights record. Rwanda is a country from which hundreds of people flee every year, including on the basis of LGBT characteristics. The UN Refugee Agency records that around 2,900 Rwandan nationals claimed asylum worldwide in 2020, including around 520 in the EU-27 and UK. At the same time, Rwanda is also a country to which (relatively small numbers) of people travel to apply for asylum. In the five years from 2016 to 2020, an average of around 480 people claimed asylum in Rwanda each year (see the Home Office’s assessment of Rwanda’s asylum system, p. 25).

In July 2021, the UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights raised concerns regarding Rwanda’s human rights record, specifically its rejection of the UK’s recommendation to “conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.”

What are the uncertainties?

Because the Rwanda policy is still in its infancy, there is a high level of uncertainty regarding who it will affect and how. The impacts or unintended consequences of the policy will also depend on how the policy is implemented and how people respond to it.

First, there is uncertainty on how current and prospective asylum seekers will respond, including those who are not removed to Rwanda. As noted above, it has not been possible to quantify any potential ‘deterrent’ effect of the policy. Similarly, it is difficult to anticipate the extent to which the policy will discourage people who are already in the UK from applying for asylum in order to avoid removal to Rwanda. There is some anecdotal evidence from humanitarian charities and refugee NGOs of asylum applicants who have left their asylum accommodation and gone underground, which would mean they do not regularise their immigration status and this could put them at greater risk of poverty or exploitation.

Second, it is not clear how many of those transferred to Rwanda would remain there vs. make further onward journeys (whether back to the UK or elsewhere). The Memorandum of Understanding states that people will not be detained in Rwanda and will be free to leave if they choose.

Third, there are uncertainties about the conditions and risks that people transferred to Rwanda will face. For example, the Home Office’s Equality Impact Assessment suggests that there is a risk of poor treatment of certain groups, noting “concerns over the treatment of some LGBTQI+ people” (p. 12), and citing “evidence that transgender persons who are likely to be more visible than others in this group may face greater risk of ill-treatment such as arbitrary arrests and detention as well as degrading treatment” (p. 14). The support provided to applicants in the asylum system is also less than in the UK. For example, the Home Office’s assessment of the Rwandan asylum system states that asylum seekers do not typically have lawyers for the initial decision process, unlike in the UK, and highlights a lack of access to free legal representation (p. 18-19). Other issues relating to the fairness of Rwanda’s asylum process include no explanation being provided for the rejection of a claim, and applicants not being informed of a right of appeal against initial rejections of their asylum claim, which introduces a risk of people being removed without the chance to appeal.

Have other countries pursued similar policies?

Few countries have pursued similar policies. Australia, Israel, and Denmark have implemented or sought policies that are comparable insofar as they attempt to hand responsibility for asylum seekers to other countries. The European Union has also pursued policy with somewhat similar aims with Turkey.

Australia’s offshore processing

In 2001, Australia began sending to Nauru and Papua New Guinea people trying to reach Australia irregularly by boat. It stopped transferring people in 2008, then resumed in 2012 before stopping again in 2014. From August 2012 to July 2013, only some asylum seekers were sent offshore. These people had their asylum claim processed overseas, and if the claim was successful, they received protection in Australia. From July 2013, the policy was different in two key ways. First, all asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat were sent offshore; and second, Australia refused to take back any asylum seeker who had reached Australia irregularly by boat, even if their claim was successful.

The Refugee Council of Australia reports that around 20,600 people were recorded attempting to reach Australia without authorisation by boat in 2013. This fell to 450 in 2014, to 217 in 2015, and never exceeded 100 in any subsequent year.

However, it cannot be inferred from these statistics that Australia’s offshoring policy is wholly or principally responsible for the marked fall in unauthorised maritime arrivals. This is because that policy also coincided with several other enforcement policies, most notably the policies of boat ‘turnbacks’ and boat ‘takebacks’. Turnbacks entailed the interception of boats at sea, and their return to just outside the territorial waters of their country of departure. Takebacks entailed Australia returning people to their country of departure via sea or air transfers. Both of these policies require co-operation with countries of departure, with Australia cooperating with Indonesia on boat turnbacks, and Sri Lanka and Vietnam on takebacks.

It is not possible to know what share of the decline in irregular boat arrivals is due to offshore processing as opposed to boats turnbacks and takebacks. It is important to note, however, that Australia has not sent people to Nauru or PNG since late 2014, while between 2013 and 2021, turnbacks and takebacks were frequently used.

At the end of 2021, Australia ended its agreement with Papua New Guinea, leaving Nauru as its sole offshore reception centre.

Criticisms of Australia’s offshoring policy have focused on its humanitarian impacts and its high financial cost. Several reports collated by the Refugee Council of Australia provide evidence of the poor conditions and abuse suffered by those held in Australia’s offshore processing centres.

Estimates of the financial cost of Australian offshoring vary. It is difficult to quantify, with UNICEF observing that “the economic costs are reported without sufficient disaggregation between the controversial deterrence-related policies, and less controversial elements of Australia’s immigration and border-protection policies, making it extremely difficult to precisely and fully determine the full economic cost of these policies to the Australian budget” (p.10). With that said, one commonly-cited estimate suggested that the annual per-person cost to Australia of processing an asylum claim in Papua New Guinea or Nauru was AUS $3.4 million, compared with AUS $4,429 to house an asylum seeker in the local Australian community – around 770 times less.

Israel’s ‘Voluntary Departure’ policy with Rwanda and Uganda

In 2013, Israel began sending Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel to Rwanda and Uganda. People were given a choice to return to their country of origin, be detained in Israel, or be transferred to Rwanda or Uganda where, it was promised, they would be able to apply for asylum. By September 2017, around 4,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals had been sent under the policy. Qualitative research with a small sample of 19 of these asylum seekers in Germany and the Netherlands suggests that some were not in fact permitted to claim asylum in Rwanda or Uganda and continued onward asylum-seeking journeys to Europe. This research and news reports suggest that of the thousands transferred to Rwanda, few remained in the country.

Denmark’s ‘zero’ refugees Rwanda policy

In June 2021, Denmark passed legislation that would allow it to move asylum seekers to countries outside the EU while their claims were processed.

Denmark signed with Rwanda a memorandum of understanding on Cooperation Regarding Asylum and Migration Issues. The MoU has been described as non-binding and “does not provide for the transfer of asylum seekers from Denmark to Rwanda”. However, the agreement has been viewed by lawyers as a “precursor” to a subsequent transfer agreement. This is supported by Denmark’s immigration minister suggesting to the BBC that Denmark is in “dialogue” with Rwanda.

The EU-Turkey deal

Following the 2015 European refugee crisis and the arrival to Europe that year of over a million asylum seekers, the EU entered into an agreement with Turkey – through which hundreds of thousands of migrants transited to the EU – to limit the number of asylum seekers arriving in the bloc.

Under the deal, asylum seekers attempting to reach Greece would be returned to Turkey, and Turkey would try to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the EU. In exchange, the EU agreed to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey, pay $6 billion aid to Turkey to support migrants, and speed up talks to facilitate Turkey joining the EU. Like the UK’s Rwanda policy, the deal aimed to deter people from taking dangerous maritime journeys to seek asylum.

Available analysis suggests that the EU-Turkey deal has had mixed results. On the one hand, the deal preceded a substantial decline in the number of asylum arrivals. In 2015, more than 861,000 asylum seekers arrived in Greece, which fell to 36,000 the year after the deal was signed – although it has been argued that the deal was not “solely responsible” for the decline. On the other hand, there has been criticism of the policy on humanitarian grounds, with Amnesty International describing the policy as an “abject failure” that has “resulted in tens of thousands of people being forced to stay in inhumane conditions on the Greek islands, and put refugees at risk by forcing them to stay in Turkey”.

Concluding remarks

The Rwanda policy is still in its infancy. As such, there remains substantial uncertainty about how it will operate and with what effects.

As noted above, for example, there is some anecdotal evidence that the policy may encourage people to remain in the UK as irregular migrants, by dissuading those who are already in the UK from pursuing what may have otherwise been successful asylum claims. It will be difficult to measure or assess how many people respond in this way.

The policy may deter some asylum seekers from coming to the UK, but it is not clear how many. Quantifying any deterrence will be difficult if not impossible, because irregular arrivals are driven by a wide range of factors, including geopolitical conditions and enforcement activity. For example, if the number of people arriving in the UK by small boat were to fall during the summer of 2022, it will not be possible to attribute this to current UK policies—whether the Rwanda deal or other policies—because it is normal for such numbers to fluctuate when policy has not changed.

Without a clear picture of how the scheme affects asylum seekers’ choices—if at all—the amount of money saved by not having to process some asylum claims financial will remain uncertain. And even if the policy’s deterrent effect were measurable, the calculation of its effects is not solely financial. It would also have to take into account the humanitarian outcomes of those who are sent to Rwanda, such as potential refoulement, human rights violations, or exploitation – all outcomes that must figure into a longer-term analysis.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Andy Hewett of the Refugee Council, and CJ McKinney of freemovement.org, for valuable feedback on a draft of this commentary. 

This analysis was produced with the support of Trust for London and Research England’s PSF allocation to the University of Oxford. Trust for London is one of the largest independent charitable foundations in London and supports work which tackles poverty and inequality in the capital. More details at www.trustforlondon.org.uk.

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