The British government’s decision to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda is clearly aimed at intimidating those fleeing from harm into not attempting to enter Britain. The government’s policy is effectively an extension of the ‘hostile environment’ approach, which sought to make life difficult for asylum seekers who reached Britain, by preventing them from getting here in the first place.
The British government’s proposals have raised alarm bells at the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, which is the guardian of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and to its 1967 protocol. This is international legislation to which the UK is a signatory. There is no evidence that UNHCR has been consulted on any plans to send asylum seekers abroad.
The government are planning to adopt the measure to demonstrate that they are tough on immigration and that the UK is not a ‘soft touch’ for those seeking asylum. However, as Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UK representative for the UNHCR has pointed out,
“…what’s often forgotten amid all the recent noise around Channel crossings is that asylum claims in the UK have been falling, and remain far lower here than in countries like France and Germany. The situation in the UK is manageable.”
British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claims that the proposals are “humane” and that they will “stop the abuse of these people by a bunch of traffickers and gangsters.”
The evidence to date suggests quite the opposite.
The Australian government initiated a policy of placing asylum seekers in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in 2001. The policy ran until 2007, and restarted in 2014. The result has been that thousands of asylum seekers have found themselves in detention camps, at a cost of around $12bn in the eight years to 2021.
The centres have been characterised by harsh physical conditions, with detainees suffering from poor mental health due to prolonged detention and uncertainty about their future prospects. Inadequate and unhygienic living conditions, as well as poor standards of healthcare have also been well documented. The detention centres were also plagued by violence, with rape and sexual abuse of unaccompanied female detainees rife – enabled and often perpetrated by local islanders and even the very personnel subcontracted to oversee and manage the facilities by the Australian government. Not only does this highlight the danger of these policies particularly for lone women asylum seekers, but also that posed by at best opaque subcontracted arrangements where safeguarding, proper oversight, and accountability become weaker with every rung down in the structure.
In a submission made to an Australian Senate inquiry into conditions at the Nauru detention centre, Ms. Charlotte Wilson, a former Save the Children worker, stated, “I firmly believe that the level of trauma that asylum seekers have been subjected to has caused profound damage to nearly every single man, woman and child who has been arbitrarily interned in Nauru.”
A migration deal between Rwanda and Israel in 2014 saw an estimated 4,000 people leave the country immediately, many attempting to return to Europe through people smuggling routes, and falling prey to trafficking and human rights abuses. Not quite as “humane” as Prime Minster Johnson would suggest. This is aside from the long-held concerns regarding the human rights record in Rwanda itself and the autocratic nature, to state the least, of the regime of President Paul Kagame.
By 2018 the Israeli government claim that around 20,000 of the estimated 65,000 asylum seekers who had arrived in the country had been deported under one scheme or another.
The government’s proposals have been opposed by bodies as diverse as the British Red Cross, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Refugee Council.
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, has been direct in his criticism of the proposals stating,
“It is an inhumane policy that undermines our nation’s proud tradition of providing protection to people fleeing persecution and terror, many of whom have gone on to work as doctors and nurses in the NHS.”
There is no indication that the policy will apply to those deemed to be seeking asylum from the war in Ukraine, who have been given active encouragement through the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, with an estimated 12,000 Ukrainian refugees so far in the UK. It is also worth noting here the recent rebuking by the UN of the Homes for Ukraine scheme and its warning that the current system of pairing female refugees with single male hosts is ‘massively open to safeguarding and abuse issues’.
Ukrainian refugees who come to the UK will receive a visa giving them the right to remain for an initial period of three years. They will have the right to work, to receive public funds such as Universal Credit, and access to public services such as schools and health care. By contrast, nationals of other countries claiming the right to asylum in the UK are not normally allowed to work while their claim is being processed.
The new proposal appears to prioritise the offshoring of non-European asylum seekers, many displaced from areas such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan as a result of foreign military interventions, occupation, economic sanctions, and NATO interventions in those countries.
Quite apart from the obvious humanitarian concerns already outlined, such a differentiation of asylum seekers, depending upon their country of origin, can only be deemed as racist.
As an organisation rooted in opposing colonialism, opposing unjust wars and supporting those in need of assistance and political asylum, Liberation has added its voice to those opposing the government’s proposals.
We are urging the government to reconsider its policy towards asylum seekers and, in line with international conventions to which it is a signatory, drop any measures which could be deemed hostile or inhumane to those seeking asylum in the UK.
That means, in addition to dropping the current proposals, in line with the views of the UNHCR, demanding a better-designed UK asylum system, properly resourced, with simplified procedures that will result in fairer and faster assessments.
15 April 2022
Photo: Australia places asylum seekers in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. ‘The level of trauma that asylum seekers were subjected to’caused profound damage to nearly every single man, woman and child who has been arbitrarily interned in Nauru’, according to a former Save the Children worker/CC