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

31 May 2024

By Peter William Walsh

This note was updated in June 2024 to reflect the publication of the National Audit Office’s investigation of the costs of the Rwanda plan, the ratification of the UK-Rwanda treaty, and the coming into force of the Safety of Rwanda Act.

 

On 14 April 2022, the UK government announced that it was going to send certain people seeking asylum in the UK to the Republic of Rwanda, where the Rwandan government would decide their asylum claims. If their claims were successful, they would be granted asylum in Rwanda, not the UK. This was to address increasing numbers of people reaching the UK without authorisation by crossing the English Channel in small boats.

On 15 November 2023, the UK’s Supreme Court declared the policy unlawful because Rwanda was not a safe country to which asylum seekers could be removed.

In response to the judgment of the Supreme Court, the government published a new treaty with Rwanda, which provides for additional safeguards, and introduced new legislation, which declares that Rwanda is a safe country for asylum seekers. On 25 April 2024, the UK’s treaty with Rwanda was ratified and the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024 became law and is now in force. The Prime Minister had said that the first flights to Rwanda would take off by around mid-July 2024. However, the government subsequently called a general election for 4 July and if there is a change of government the scheme may not continue.

This Q&A answers some common questions about the Rwanda policy and its implications:

What is the Rwanda policy?

In a speech introducing the Rwanda policy – known formally as the Migration and Economic Development Partnership – Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister, said that “anyone entering the UK illegally – as well as those who have arrived illegally since 1 January 2022 – may now be relocated to Rwanda”.

Government policy states that removals to Rwanda aim “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”. The primary issue that the Rwanda plan aims to address is people crossing the English Channel in small boats.

The policy applies to people who have claimed asylum, regardless of whether or not they are refugees. It does not target people who have been refused asylum in the UK. People relocated to Rwanda would have their claims assessed there, and those who were recognised as refugees would not be eligible to return to the UK.

The government’s guidance states (p. 12) that asylum applicants may be eligible for removal to Rwanda if three criteria are met: (1) the government determines that they were previously present in or had a connection to another country in which they could have claimed asylum; (2) their “journey to the UK can be described as having been dangerous”; and (3) 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 they could be relocated. However, Rwandan nationals, and unaccompanied asylum seeking children would not be relocated.

The arrangement has been described as a “pilot” or “trial”. According to the UK-Rwanda treaty, the agreement will last until 13 April 2027, with the possibility of extension.

There is no cap on the number of people the UK can relocate to Rwanda. However, the government has not been clear about how many removals can realistically be expected. News reports have said that the numbers sent to Rwanda would initially be low, with Rwanda suggesting it will take 1,000 asylum seekers in the five-year trial period. Small numbers are consistent with the recent capacity of Rwanda’s asylum system to process claims. The government’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. That said, the December 2023 treaty expanded the deal so that people who do not apply for asylum or are not recognised as refugees will still get permanent residence in Rwanda. If people who are relocated there do not apply for asylum, this would lessen the burden on Rwanda’s asylum system.

The Labour party has said that it would scrap the Rwanda scheme on the basis that they do not consider it to provide value for money. Labour have proposed to divert the money that would have been spent on Rwanda to fund additional enforcement activity instead.

What did the Supreme Court say?

The first flight taking asylum seekers to Rwanda was scheduled for 14 June 2022. This flight was cancelled due to an injunction issued by the European Court of Human Rights. Seven people who had come to the UK seeking asylum were expected to be removed until roughly two hours before the flight was due to depart. But a ruling by the Strasbourg court on one of the seven cases allowed lawyers for the other six to make successful appeals suspending their removal.

The lawfulness of the overall policy was then challenged in the UK’s High Court by asylum seekers who had been selected for relocation. The High Court ruled on 19 December 2022 that the policy was lawful. This was appealed to the Court of Appeal, which ruled by a majority of two judges to one that the policy was unlawful. The Home Office appealed this judgment to the Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda policy was unlawful because Rwanda was not a safe country to which asylum seekers could be removed. This is primarily because of inadequacies in Rwanda’s asylum system which mean that the Rwandan authorities were not able to provide accurate and fair asylum decisions. If Rwanda was not able to process asylum claims properly and hence identify genuine refugees, then there would be a risk that such refugees could be returned to the countries from which they have fled where they could face ill-treatment – known as refoulement.

Why did the Supreme Court say Rwanda was unsafe?

The Supreme Court raised three main issues: (1) the country’s poor human rights record; (2) the presence of serious and systematic defects in its asylum processing; and (3) that under a similar agreement with Israel, Rwanda removed asylum seekers to countries of origin, thus violating the principle of non-refoulement. Each of these findings is expanded upon in turn.

The Supreme Court’s judgment cited evidence of Rwanda’s poor human rights record. This evidence included a High Court finding that Rwanda had recently instigated killings of people critical of its government, which led to British police warning Rwandan nationals living in the UK of “credible plans” by the Rwandan state to kill them. The court also cited the concerns of UK government officials about constraints on political and media freedom. The judgment further references an incident in 2018 in which the Rwandan police shot refugees protesting over cuts to food rations, killing at least twelve people. The court concluded that given Rwanda’s ratification of several international human rights conventions, this conduct raised serious questions “as to its compliance with its international obligations”.

The inadequacy of Rwanda’s asylum system was supported by evidence presented to the Supreme Court by the UN Refugee Agency (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR). The Supreme Court highlighted four particular issues:

  • Rwanda’s procedures and institutions for processing asylum claims, such as a lack of legal representation, a risk that lawyers and judges do not act independently of the government in politically sensitive cases, and there being at the time no example of an appeal being brought against an asylum decision, despite a right of appeal existing since 2018.
  • The high rejection rate of asylum claims brought by individuals from certain countries. Citizens of Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen all had a 0% success rate in claims processed by Rwanda from 2020 to 2022. By contrast, in the UK in the same period, the success rates were 74% for Afghans, 98% for Syrians, and 40% for Yemenis.
  • Rwanda’s practice of removing refugees to countries of origin where they could be at risk of persecution, including since the Rwanda agreement was signed – a violation of the principle of non-refoulement. In its evidence to the Supreme Court, UNHCR reported six recent cases of asylum claimants whose expulsion from Rwanda resulted in refoulement or would have without UNHCR’s intervention.
  • The Rwandan government’s apparent misunderstanding of the Refugee Convention, in particular the principle of non-refoulement. In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that the Rwandan government appeared to believe that asylum claimants can be expelled if they applied for asylum only after failing to satisfy immigration requirements (according to the Supreme Court, they cannot); and that the expulsion of asylum seekers who use forged documents does not constitute refoulement (for the Supreme Court, it does).

The Israel-Rwanda arrangement (described below) was said by the Supreme Court to raise questions about the Rwandan government’s commitment to non-refoulement. UNHCR presented evidence that asylum seekers who arrived in Rwanda under the agreement were routinely moved clandestinely to Uganda – a serious breach of their rights under the Refugee Convention, to which Rwanda is a signatory.

What next for the Rwanda policy?

The UK government responded to the Supreme Court’s judgment by (1) agreeing a new treaty with Rwanda to replace the Memorandum of Understanding that initially laid out the policy, and (2) introducing a bill that says Rwanda safe for asylum seekers. The aim of the treaty is primarily to address concerns that Rwanda was not safe due to the risk that refugees would be sent from Rwanda to countries where they would be at risk of ill-treatment. The aim of the bill is to prevent people from challenging their removal to Rwanda in UK courts.

The Rwanda-UK treaty

The treaty aims to make Rwanda safe for people removed there, primarily by stating that no relocated person will be sent to any country except the UK, thereby (in theory) removing the risk of refoulement. If a relocated person is unsuccessful in their asylum claim in Rwanda, the Rwandan government will nevertheless give them permanent residence.

The treaty also introduces new or stronger safeguards. It expands the powers of the Independent Monitoring Committee, which has broad investigative powers and reports to a Joint Committee comprising senior officials from the Rwandan and UK government. The treaty also provides for the creation of a new initial decision-making body, and a new appeals court.

The treaty differs in some key respects from the Memorandum of Understanding it is intended to replace. First, the treaty broadens the range of people who can be sent to Rwanda, from asylum claimants to others arriving irregularly in the UK. Second, under the MOU, once a person is relocated to Rwanda, they would be ineligible to return to the UK, but could be returned to their country of origin if their asylum claim were refused. The Supreme Court ruled that this made Rwanda an unsafe country to send asylum seekers to, because there would be a risk of ‘refoulement’: the return of refugees to countries from which they have fled where they could face ill-treatment. The new treaty aims to address this concern by stating that a relocated individual cannot be moved to any country, except the UK.

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024

On 7 December 2023, the government published a new piece of prospective legislation: the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. The bill declares Rwanda a safe country to which asylum seekers can be removed (regardless of whether or not this is true), and substantially limits people’s ability to challenge their relocation to Rwanda in UK courts.

That bill became law on 25 April 2024, becoming the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. Under the Act,a person would no longer be able to challenge their relocation on the basis that Rwanda is not a safe country in general, that Rwanda is unsafe because a person may be refouled, or that Rwanda will not live up to its agreement. Instead, a person would have to argue (in domestic courts) that Rwanda is not safe for them in particular (say, because they are a known critic of the Rwandan government).

It is possible that the treaty does address the Supreme Court’s concerns in principle. Perhaps the biggest question is whether the court would be convinced that Rwanda can be relied upon to comply with the agreements it signs (a concern the Supreme Court raised that is not obviously addressed by the treaty). However, the bill aims to prevent this being tested again in UK courts.  This is an unusual approach that a former Supreme Court judge has described as “constitutionally really quite extraordinary”.

However, claimants could still go to the European Court of Human Rights, which would be able to rule on the compliance with international of the Rwanda plan as a whole.

Will the policy deter unauthorised arrivals?

If the Rwanda policy proceeds, it is difficult to predict how it will affect the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats or claiming asylum in the UK. However, the available evidence suggests it is unlikely to be the game-changer that the government hopes.

The deterrent impact of the policy will likely depend on the number of people that are sent to Rwanda. If only a few hundred asylum seekers are 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 2022 and 2023, then the probability of a person crossing the Channel in a small boat 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 to materially reduce irregular entry to the UK – especially given that the dangerous small boat journey itself has not been enough to dissuade many people.

Fundamentally, there remains a high degree of uncertainty about the deterrent effect of the Rwanda policy. 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 is little evidence that the policy will deter irregular arrivals, it cannot be firmly concluded that it will be cost-effective.

For more discussion of asylum policies’ deterrent effect, see The Migration Observatory briefing, UK policies to deter people from seeking asylum.

The Labour party has said that it would cancel the policy, if it wins the 2024 general election. They have previously said that they would support a returns deal with the EU instead.

How much will the scheme cost?

The ultimate cost of the policy is unknown.

On 1 March 2024, the National Audit Office (NAO), the UK’s public spending supervisory body, published an Investigation into the costs of the UK-Rwanda Partnership. This investigation found that under the agreement, the UK government provides fixed-cost development funding to Rwanda, as well as per-person development payments, and per-person processing and integration payments.

The NAO’s estimates suggest that the UK government would spend around £600 million to send 300 people to Rwanda, equivalent to around £2 million per person; and around £4 billion to send 20,000 people, which is around £200,000 per person. These estimates exclude the wider costs of implementing the Illegal Migration Act, such as expanding detention capacity. By contrast, the UK government’s Impact Assessment for the Illegal Migration Act estimates that the cost of processing a person’s asylum claim in the UK as normal is around £106,000.

For more information on the finances of the Rwanda scheme, see The Migration Observatory’s analysis, The uncertain financial implications of the UK’s Rwanda policy.

Have other countries pursued similar policies?

Few countries have pursued similar policies. Australia, Israel, and Denmark have implemented or sought policies that attempt to hand responsibility for asylum seekers to other countries. The European Union has also pursued with Turkey a policy with somewhat similar aims, and has funded a UN-operated scheme to send vulnerable refugees from Libya to Rwanda – with their consent. Most recently, Albania has agreed to accommodate asylum seekers from Italy while their claims are processed.

Australia’s offshore processing

In October 2001, the Australian government began sending people trying to reach Australia irregularly by boat to Nauru and Papua New Guinea, under a policy known as the Pacific Solution. It stopped transferring people in 2008, then resumed in September 2012, with people beginning to be transferred to Nauru on 14 September 2012, and to Papua New Guinea on 21 November 2012. Australia last transferred a person to Nauru in September 2014, and Papua New Guinea in December 2014.

From 2012, people had their claims processed overseas by the Australian authorities. If claims were successful, people were granted asylum in Australia. This changed in July 2013, after which Australia refused to resettle anyone who travelled irregularly by boat regardless of the outcome of their asylum claim.

On 18 September 2013, Australia also implemented Operation Sovereign Borders, described as a “military-led response to combat people smuggling and to protect [Australia’s] borders”, which incorporated the policies of ‘takebacks’ and boat ‘turnbacks’. Turnbacks entail the interception of boats at sea, and their return to the territorial waters of their country of departure, after which they are escorted back to that country. Takebacks entail 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 people takebacks.

The Refugee Council of Australia reports that around 20,600 people were recorded attempting to reach Australia without authorisation by boat in 2013. Numbers fell sharply to under 500 the following year and have remained low since (Figure 1).

It is difficult to know the extent to which this fall resulted from Australia’s offshoring policy as opposed to the policies of ‘takebacks’ and boat ‘turnbacks’ implemented as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.

Figure 1

On 31 December 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 local Australian communities – around 770 times less.

Notably, although boat arrivals to Australia have fallen substantially, the number of people reaching Australia by plane and claiming asylum has increased since the financial year 2013/14. In the financial year 2022/2023, around 18,700 people claimed asylum in Australia after reaching the country by plane.

The Israel-Rwanda scheme

From 2013 to 2018, Israel began sending Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who sought asylum in Israel to Rwanda for their claims to be processed there. They were given a choice to return to their country of origin, be detained in Israel, or be transferred with $3,500 to Rwanda with the opportunity to claim asylum there. 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 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. Research by UNCHR, presented to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, made a similar finding. It conducted interviews with 80 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Italy who had been relocated under the Israel-Rwanda scheme, who revealed that they felt they had “no other choice” but to risk their lives again by leaving Rwanda and continuing their asylum-seeking journeys to Europe. In its judgment, the Supreme Court noted that UNHCR found that asylum seekers who arrived in Rwanda under the Israel-Rwanda arrangement “were routinely moved clandestinely to Uganda” and that UNHCR

“provided evidence relating to more than 100 nationals of Eritrea and Sudan who had arrived in Rwanda under the agreement during 2015 and 2016 and had then been taken to the Ugandan border or put on flights to Uganda. In three cases, refoulement to Eritrea (via Kenya) had only been prevented by UNHCR’s intervention.”

The UK-Rwanda Treaty signed in December 2023 aims to address this concern by stating that people relocated from the UK to Rwanda could be removed only to the UK, not to other countries.

The EU-funded scheme to move Libyan refugees to Rwanda

Since September 2019, the European Union has funded a scheme operated by UNHCR that moves particularly vulnerable refugees from Libya to Rwanda. Known as the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM), its aim is to “provide a safe space and long-term solutions to some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees in Libya.”

The House of Commons Library notes that the ETM differs from the UK-Rwanda deal in several key respects, including: (1) asylum seekers in the UK do not have any choice over whether they are sent to Rwanda, whereas the ETM is voluntary; (2) people relocated under the UK-Rwanda scheme have their claims processed by the Rwandan government, while people transferred under the ETM are considered for asylum by UNHCR; and (3) the ETM is designed to move people from an emergency situation in Libya in which UNHCR has limited power to provide protection to refugees; while the UK-Rwanda policy aims to send asylum seekers from the safety of the UK to deter irregular migration.

Denmark’s MoU with Rwanda

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” (although like the UK’s MoU with Rwanda, it allows for the resettlement of refugees from Rwanda to Denmark); however, the agreement has been viewed by lawyers as a “precursor” to a subsequent transfer agreement. Following a change of government at the end of 2022, news reports suggest that Denmark has moved away from pursuing a bilateral deal with Rwanda in favour of an agreement with the EU.

The EU-Turkey deal

Following the arrival to Europe in 2015 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 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 arguing that the policy has meant “tens of thousands of people” remained on the Greek islands living in poor conditions or were returned to Turkey, where they could be at risk.

Italy’s agreement with Albania

On 6 November 2023, Italy’s Prime Minister announced a scheme where migrants rescued at sea would be moved to Albania while their asylum claims are processed. Unlike the Rwanda scheme, claims would be processed by the Italian authorities, and successful claimants would receive asylum in Italy. Italy would also be responsible for removing unsuccessful claimants.

On 13 December 2023, Albania’s constitutional court temporarily blocked the scheme while it decides whether it violates Albania’s constitution.

Acknowledgements

This research was made possible thanks to the support of Oak Foundation. With thanks to CJ McKinney for detailed feedback on drafts of this Q&A.

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