Britain’s new policy of sending asylum seekers to the East African nation is probably illegal and certainly wrong. It will almost surely prove ineffective. 

Source: Bloomberg

British Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta seal their migration agreement.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta seal their migration agreement.Photographer: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP


Therese Raphael

April 20, 2022, 6:30 AM UTC

We want our governments to be creative in solving intractable problems. But the new British policy of sending asylum seekers 4,000 miles away to Rwanda doesn’t count as the “innovative” answer to people-smuggling that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel claim. 

Patel has faced constant criticism over her failure to tackle the problem of migrants crossing the English Channel. She announced a “pushback” policy last year to forcibly turn back dinghies carrying migrants — the final, dangerous leg of harrowing journeys for most of them.  It proved ineffective and was shot down by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. The deaths of 27 migrants in one tragically failed crossing last year laid bare the broader failings of the government’s policy.

So just before the long Easter weekend, Johnson announced a deal with Rwanda to eventually take tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Britain. Early reports spoke of a pilot plan that would target single males for deportation and suggested their asylum applications would be processed offshore. The actual program is far more draconian. Any adult asylum seeker will be forcibly deported to Rwanda, where they won’t have the right to apply for U.K. asylum but must try their luck with Rwanda’s system. 

Clever politics doesn’t always make good policy, though. And it’s not even clear the government has gotten the politics right. 

It’s not just opposition Labour Party members who are critical. Former Prime Minister Theresa May said the deal failed to meet the bar on “legality, practicality and efficacy.” Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative lawmaker and former international development secretary, called it impractical, ineffective and expensive. Jewish leaders and the Archbishop of Canterbury have denounced the plan.

The goal, as Johnson laid out, is to disrupt the business model of the people smugglers. Time will tell, but there is no good evidence that such policies will deter some of the world’s most vulnerable people from making that short but perilous journey. As one Afghan asylum seeker who escaped via that route noted, the people smugglers will continue to be persuasive. Those who manage to cross will immediately be criminalized (since they are denied any legal route to asylum), with many forced into effectively slave labor to survive.

The initial costs to the U.K. taxpayer – 120 million pounds ($156 million) – will be but a small down payment on a program more likely to run into the billions. At those levels, it will be hard to argue that money isn’t better spent on more humane policies for tackling the problem onshore. 

There will certainly be a legal challenges, too. The deportation policy, like the government’s stalled immigration bill, discriminates against asylum seekers on the basis of how they arrive in the country, while international law designates refugee status on the basis of the threat of persecution. 

Its success depends not only on the goal of deterrence being achieved, but also on the humane treatment of those who are deported. Israel famously sent asylum seekers to Rwanda as part of a “voluntary” program; many of them ended up with traffickers and faced other abuses and indignities. Israel’s supreme court shot down its expulsion plan and in April 2018, Israel suspended its policy of deportations of African asylum seekers. Denmark has also been pursuing an offshoring arrangement with Rwanda though the U.K. got to the finish line first, which makes you wonder what else is in that deal. 

While Australia’s ultra-tough policy still wins votes, its offshore processing centers have seen deaths, suicides and inhumane treatment. They have been criticized by the United Nations, which says it violates the UN convention against torture and by the international criminal court. The Australia Supreme Court ruled the Papua New Guinea processing center illegal. (Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has advised the government on its asylum policy and appears in a Home Office video promoting it.)

Whatever the imperfections of the current system, the danger here is that one kind of people trafficking will be replaced with another. The U.S. experience with deportation – where migrants are often painfully bound and often suffer abuse – offers a cautionary tale too, as a University of Washington Center for Human Rights study of deportation flights has shown. 

For all the positive change since a genocidal civil war in the 1990s, Rwanda’s human-rights record leaves much to be desired. Rwandan security forces shot and killed a dozen Congolese refugees in 2018 during a protest over food rations. The U.K. government has raised concerns about Rwanda’s human-rights record – including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and lack of free expression; Rwandans have even been granted asylum in Britain.

If not this policy, then what, ask government ministers? One answer is real reform of the asylum system so that applications can be processed in an orderly and timely manner and asylum seekers treated humanely as they wait. Britain ranks below Sweden, the U.S., France and Germany in the number of refugees it takes, but asylum seekers in the U.K. face appalling wait times and often inadequate living conditions. They are also denied the right to work, which makes them dependent on the taxpayer and fuels some of the public discontent.  

Sources: Our World in Data; UNHCR (2020, 2021)

The government should amend the new immigration bill as the House of Lords requests and build legal routes for those determined to come. Any solution will also require better cooperation with France, where relations have varied from cool to practically hostile since Brexit. 

The government may be surprised to find that its dog-whistle policy doesn’t get the response it’s counting on. Sunder Katwala, director of the U.K.-based think tank British Future, thinks the public will find the policy distasteful rather than a sign the government is finally cracking down on illegals. 

War, climate change and other forces are creating more migrants and refugees, for which there are no easy answers. No doubt developed countries need to do more with aid and education to reduce the factors pushing migrants to leave their homes. But the trend toward “externalization” – shifting the problem offshore to some developing country so they are out of sight and mind – is a pernicious erosion of an ancient right and one that has been enshrined in international law since 1948. And that seems to be the government’s direction of travel.