In April 2022, Rwanda signed an agreement with the United Kingdom, which is known as the ″UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership″ (hereafter the Agreement), a 5-year collaboration aimed at addressing the asylum-related immigration crisis in the UK. This agreement has received criticisms from different corners, including partisan commentators, whose target is to score political points, as well as from ardent refugee and human rights activists. But the criticisms are at best uninformed or at worst malicious.
Let me begin with some contextual truth. Historically, people migrate in search of economic opportunities or to run away from persecution and conflicts. The Arab Spring, in particular conflicts in Libya and Syria (since 2011) significantly increased the number of people seeking asylum in Europe. Though this number remains relatively small compared to asylum applications received in developing countries, the increase is still significant compared to the previous years. In that wave of asylum seekers, we have witnessed in horror several hundreds of desperate people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, thousands more barricaded behind barbed wires and walls at the gates of Europe, and many more forced to stay on islands in Spain, Greece and Italy. More recently, on 29 June 2022, migrants’ attempt to cross from Morocco into Spain resulted in the killing of at least 23 of them by both countries’ security forces.
For those who manage to enter Europe through a hair’s breadth, several are consigned to uninhabitable houses or sleeping on the streets.
The French Calais Jungle Refugee camp that became notorious in 2015 and 2016, where over a million asylum seekers crowded in unsanitary makeshift tents risking their lives in the hands of smugglers willing to transport them across the English Channel on dangerous boats or on lorries to the UK, is one of the highlights of a refugee crisis in the middle of Europe.
International law is clear on the right to seek asylum. Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ″Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Article 33 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (hereafter refugee convention) prohibits states from expelling or returning (refoulement) ″a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened (…).” The Refugee Convention also prohibits states in its Article 31(1) from punishing refugees for ″their illegal entry or presence (…), coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened, (…) provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.” Even if it is logical to argue that ″coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened” means that a fleeing person should seek asylum in the first safe country she or he gets to, this is not an explicit requirement under international law. What is clear is that every person within a state’s territory has rights and deserves protection. Human rights law in particular guarantees protection for people found on a state’s territory regardless of how they found themselves on that territory. However, as Weis notes in his analysis of the Refugee Convention’s travaux preparatoires, international law does not assume that an asylum seeker ″must in all cases be admitted to the country where she or he seeks entry“, and neither does it provide for the procedure in which refugee status is granted. This is left to the domestic system of the country of destination to determine.
Statistics show that more than 50% of those seeking asylum in Europe are rejected. In most countries, when an asylum seeker is refused refugee status, she or he is asked to leave that country voluntarily or facilitated to go to another country that is willing to receive her or him. If she or he refuses to leave, that person automatically becomes an illegal migrant and is a subject of deportation or arrest. It is at the discretion of a state to declare someone on its territory undesirable, whether for reasons of security, public order or simply on grounds of general disturbance. Research shows that rejected asylum seekers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, live in fear and reel from everyday struggles of life, work in exploitative conditions, and are usually in poor health.
As if all these facts were not disturbing, the international community has remained silent while vulnerable people are left in the hands of smugglers as the last solution to their safety. This is where the UK-Rwanda agreement comes in.
The objective of the agreement is ″to create a mechanism for the relocation of asylum seekers whose claims are not being considered by the United Kingdom, to Rwanda, which will process their claims and settle or remove (as appropriate) individuals after their claim is decided (…).” Moreover, apart from creating a humane and dignified mechanism for treating asylum seekers who would otherwise be left in precarious conditions, the agreement is intended to prevent unlawful cross-border migration, and destroy the business model of cross-border human traffickers and smugglers preying on vulnerable people.
I understand that the UK might be externalising its problem through this agreement, and it is absolutely correct that such an arrangement be critically scrutinised to ensure that it complies with UK’s domestic law and its international obligations. However, critics have been misdirecting their attacks at Rwanda, a country that is proposing a solution to a problem that has been in existence for almost a decade. I want to acknowledge the sense in the argument that people should be allowed to live wherever they want. Agreed. But that does not reflect the realities of the world we live in today. Today, we still have borders, and I hate to say this: in this world, we are still experiencing both implicit and explicit forms of discrimination, boundaries and hierarchies. Freedom of movement is more or less restricted on the basis of race. We may not like to face it, but that is the reality.
There are those who are suggesting that the UK should provide safe and legal pathways for people seeking asylum to use. On the surface, this is a good solution but, in reality, it is offering a partial response. It is a good solution because there is a lot of kindness to pass around, if we are willing to extend it to those in need. The support Europe extended to Ukrainian refugees showed us that if the same had been provided for other asylum seekers, the situation of unwanted asylum seekers could have been less desperate. On the other hand, it is partial in the sense that it does not provide a solution to those whose application for asylum will be rejected after using the legal process, unless the argument is that whoever enters the UK territory should automatically be awarded a refugee status. Failure to respond to the question of rejected asylum seekers takes us back to having people who are stateless and living in limbo.
One can easily be persuaded by the cynicism that Rwanda is in this agreement for the little money the UK government is promising, but only those who know nothing about Rwanda’s migration policy would buy into such a narrow-minded narrative. Rwanda’s migration policy is designed to encourage tourism, entry of foreign skilled workers and investors. For instance, nationals of all countries receive visa on arrival, while visa fees are waived for citizens of the African Union, Commonwealth and Francophone countries for a 30-day stay. On humanitarian grounds, Rwanda is currently hosting over 120,000 refugees, and it has entered an agreement with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to relocate some of the asylum seekers who were living in inhumane conditions in Libya and were even traded as slaves. Moreover, Rwanda has received girl students from Afghanistan under its migration policy, and many others.
In light of the aforementioned facts, this vilification campaign is unjustifiable. People’s motives are as diverse as the interests they pursue. There are those who believe that the UK should be doing more to help than it is currently doing. But surely, this cannot be a justification for directing all the anger towards Rwanda.
One should also acknowledge the disappointment of asylum seekers whose months and efforts on a treacherous “life and death” journey to the UK is likely to end in an opposite direction. However, we should treat with contempt the very cynical ‘human rights’ activists who benefit from chaos and the misery of others, the ambulance chasers whose jobs and funding are going to be affected.
It is also worth noting that the reasons for targeting Rwanda can be found in the manner in which human rights law is framed. The Convention Against Torture, and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights in particular states that ″[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Therefore, if you want to oppose a decision of transferring someone to a certain country, you suggest that the asylum seeker is likely to suffer some human rights violations in that country, which is what some claim. It can be argued that the attack against Rwanda’s human rights record is aimed at creating patterns that can prove the existence of fear of human rights violations, but such arguments don’t stand to scrutiny given Rwanda’s impeccable treatment of refugees.
Certainly, Rwanda is not a perfect country, but neither is the UK or any country in the west. If anything, Rwanda has contributed to putting the distressing situation of asylum seekers in Europe at the centre of discussions. That in itself is a good thing. If you think otherwise, I challenge other Western countries to come up with better alternatives to the asylum crisis in the UK and the rest of Europe.