A way to save life or to avoid responsibility?
On April 14, British Home Secretary Priti Patel joined Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta at a press conference in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to announce a new plan to combat illegal immigration. The migration problem has always been a central issue in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political campaign, including at the time of Brexit.
The announcement of this agreement with Rwanda could therefore not come at a better time for Johnson. Not only will he be able to shift the attention from the scandal of the government’s illegal meetings during the Covid lockdown, but he will also be able to win back more consensus and make good on the old promise to regain control.
The English Channel, a small waterway between the United Kingdom and France, has recently seen an increase in migrants and refugees trying to reach Britain in search of a safer place to live, often on inadequate boats that make the journey even more dangerous. From the 8500 migrants who reached the UK in 2020, the number rose to 28000 in 2021, leading last November to one of the deadliest incidents in the history of the English Channel, with 27 deaths.
Johnson called the proposal an “innovative approach driven by our shared humanitarian impulse and enabled by the freedoms of Brexit.” It’s a plan that aims to improve the U.K.’s asylum system, curb human trafficking across the English Channel and – in short – save lives. At least on paper.
Under this plan, anyone who comes to Britain illegally could be sent to Rwanda. Resettlement will not be based on the migrant’s country of origin but on other criteria not yet defined, although the British government has stressed that children will not be affected. The agreement – which has not yet been approved by the British Parliament – is to last for an initial 5 years and will cost Britain 120 million pounds to help Rwanda provide housing, education, skills and language training to the migrants.
Recently, the British government had already tried to conclude a similar agreement with Albania and Ghana. It is also not the only state trying to export the asylum process and thus its own responsibility. In fact, as early as 2013, Australia began sending asylum seekers trying to reach the country to Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru. A policy that was widely criticized, as was the British Prime Minister’s decision.
Following the announcement of the agreement with Rwanda, several nongovernmental organizations spoke out and expressed their opposition. Both Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) believe that far from saving lives, this plan will only put them at greater risk. People fleeing conflict and persecution will not stop fleeing, they will just be forced to find new routes that are likely to be even more unsafe. As Enver Solomon, executive director of the U.K.-based charity Refugee Council, said, “Instead, the government should focus on running an orderly, humane and fair asylum system and developing safe routes such as humanitarian visas, rather than harming lives and destroying our reputation as a country that values human rights.” The opposition Labour Party has also spoken out against the plan. It calls it an “unethical policy” that will end up costing Britons a lot of money without really solving the problem.
Johnson, who obviously expected the criticism, believes that the partnership with Rwanda does not violate international law. However, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) require all states to rescue people in distress at sea and to take them to a “place of safety” (POS). Unfortunately, there is no universal definition of POS, but it is easy to see that this is a place where the human rights of migrants are respected. The real question, therefore, is whether or not Rwanda can be considered as one.
Although Rwanda appears to be one of the safest states because, as reported by the British government website, “levels of crime remain relatively low in Rwanda,” the ratio of facts is quite different. As Human Rights Watch has reported several times in recent years, it is a country that is downright authoritarian, a state where anyone who dares to express dissent against the government is threatened and arrested. There are several suspicious deaths and disappearances of critics, members of the opposition and journalists. Recently, an interesting book has been published that aims to shed light on the real situation in Rwanda and its president. Michela Wrong’s book, “Do not disturb: the story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad“, focuses specifically on the mysterious murder of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief, in South Africa in 2014. When asked by a Western journalist, President Kagame denied any Rwandan involvement in Karegeya’s death, adding that he hoped that was the case. But the message to the population was quite different: “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you.”
Therefore, Rwanda seems to be anything but a safe place for asylum seekers, but rather a place where their basic freedoms are once again restricted and suppressed. From this perspective then, the agreement signed by the two countries appears to violate the rules of international law. Special attention should also be paid to the different treatment of Ukrainian refugees compared to asylum seekers from other countries, although in both cases they are people fleeing their country in order to try to save their lives. Why would you open the doors of your home to Ukrainians but send everyone else as far away as possible? Who decided which life is worth more and which is worth less? And on the basis of what criteria?
The two different programs that the British Government has set in place to menage the “standard” immigration and the immigration caused by the Ukrainian war are so different and so contradictory that it is very difficult to believe that they were created by the same government. A government who – by the way – keeps talking about saving lives and protecting human rights.