UK-Rwanda asylum deal raises human rights concerns
By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Humanity has always been on the move. Since the earliest times, global migration and mobility have been influenced by various trends, including the search for work, better conditions of livelihood, and safety from war and natural disasters, among others.
This challenge of migration is a pressing topic on the international agenda, and more especially for frontline states in Europe and the United States, which have had to shoulder more of the responsibility of dealing with the influx of migrants who have left or have been forced to flee their countries in search of a better life. Many of these people have to brave perilous journeys by sea or land to arrive at their destinations.
The growing numbers of migrants arriving on foreign shores have set off debates about migration policies in many countries. While many aspects are relatively uncontroversial, there are other sides that have exposed flaws in migration laws, raised concerns for the respect for the safety and dignity of migrants, and have led to policy debates.
A recent case of policy controversy is the announcement of an agreement between the United Kingdom and Rwanda that will see some of the migrants and asylum seekers who enter Britain illegally sent to the East African nation to have their asylum claims processed there. This announcement has drawn sharp criticism from UK opposition politicians as well as religious, human rights, and refugee groups, who raise moral and legal questions about a country’s obligations to migrants and asylum seekers.
Botswanan activist and lawyer, Alice Mogwe spoke with Vatican News on this latest deal between the UK and Rwanda, reflecting on its implications from the perspective of human rights. She is the President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Mogwe argues that this deal is a breach of international law, particularly the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which puts an obligation on signatory States to ensure that asylum seekers who go through the proper asylum-seeking procedures are protected, and have access to their territories. She is concerned about the risk that some asylum claims may not even be considered before people are shipped off to Rwanda.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson justifies the deal, saying that it will discourage people from making the dangerous attempt of crossing the English Channel and will also protect migrants from people-smuggling gangs.
Some welcome, others not?
The UK/Rwanda asylum and migrant proposal comes against the backdrop of international efforts, including by Britain, to create structures of welcome for the millions of Ukrainian refugees who have fled for their lives from the ongoing Russian invasion of their country.
As of 21 April, the UK had issued visas to 71,800Ukrainian refugees; 32,500 of those fall under the Ukraine Family Scheme visas, while 39,300 are part of the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme visas.
Mogwe recalls the African concept of “ubuntu” which invites everyone to respect the fundamental dignity of the other, in recognition of our common humanity which binds us together. However, she notes that this UK/Rwanda deal may be setting a precedent that “those who are not wanted in the UK are acceptable in Africa.”
This, she notes, is further underlined, by the military, which has operational command for cross-channel counter migration operations “with a focus on ensuring that those who are not wanted in the UK are sent elsewhere.”
The risk of human commodification
The controversial refugee-outsourcing agreement will see Britain pay an initial 120 million pounds to Rwanda to accept possibly thousands of refugees who try to enter the UK in small boats via the English Channel.
Re-echoing the viewpoints many critiques have referred to this as effectively enabling legalized human trafficking, Mogwe added that it could be a reminder of the African history of colonialism and human commodification during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
She supports this claim by recalling the words of Professor Richardson from the University of Hull, who narrates an episode of history where the Royal Navy intercepted a shipment of slaves from West Africa but did not allow the liberated slaves the option of choosing where to settle.
UK/Rwanda asylum deal: deterrent or dangerous
Despite the perils of the journey, last year alone at least 28,431 people crossed the English Channel, with some unsuccessful, including 27 who died when their boat sank in November, according to the BBC.
Mogwe questions if the new deal will not push people to find other potentially more dangerous ways of entering into the UK, further risking their lives in the interest of seeking a better life or fleeing situations of poor governance and civil unrest.
“What we would have liked to see”, she says, is “for the government of the UK to focus more on creating safer routes for asylum seekers.”
Mogwe also states her unease that the UK, a leader in the commonwealth, would make such a move because the country, in January 2021, had raised concerns before the Human Rights Council about the state of human rights in Rwanda, and called upon the East African nation to model Commonwealth values of democracy, respect for rights, and the rule of law.
In lieu of the controversial agreement, the FIDH president invites governments to stop focusing on the consequences of migration but rather coordinate efforts to stem the causes of migration.
“Nobody wakes up one day and decides to leave their country if there is good governance, if there is a rule of law, if human rights are in fact being protected and respected,” she says.
More so, she calls for a revision of the Asylum agreement, stressing that states need to comply with international human rights standards.
“What will happen to those who are vulnerable?” she asks. “What's going to happen if children are separated? What's going to happen if people fail to be recognized as refugees in Rwanda once they reach there?”
The Church in service of migrants
In the midst of the conversation surrounding the asylum deal, Mogwe notes the role that the Catholic Church has been playing in speaking up against the proposal.
The UK branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), for example, denounced the plan, calling it “a craven disregard for humanity and dignity,” happening “in the face of horrifying evidence that offshore processing fosters human rights abuses.”
Mogwe also calls on the Holy Father who holds the plight of migrants and refugees dear to his heart, to shine the light on the issue.
Pope Francis, in fact, has often appealed for migrants and refugees to be welcomed, protected, promoted, and integrated. On the 107th World Day for Migrants and Refugees, the Pope, once again, urged all people to "walk together, without prejudice and without fear, drawing near to the most vulnerable: migrants, refugees, displaced persons, victims of human trafficking, and the abandoned.”
Finally, Mogwe calls on governments around to world to take positive action to address the situation of migrants and asylum seekers.