Why the UK’s Plan to Stop Migrants Depends on Rwanda

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(Bloomberg) -- The UK has developed a novel solution to the migration pressures facing many developed nations: Send asylum-seekers to Africa. The plan — first floated by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022 — was to immediately deport migrants who arrive on British shores without permission some 4,000 miles (6,440 kilometers) to Rwanda. Almost two years later, the UK has yet to fly a single migrant the central African nation, having been rejected in a string of legal defeats. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has staked his political future on a vow to get the plan done.

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1. What problem is the UK trying solve?

Like countries across Europe, the UK has experienced a surge in asylum-seekers fleeing conflict and economic turmoil in Asia and Africa. About 46,000 people arrived in the UK last year by crossing the English Channel in dangerous small boats, largely from neighboring France. More than 70% of those who arrived since 2018 were nationals of five countries — Iran, Syria, Albania, Iraq and Afghanistan — according to an analysis by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory. Almost nine in 10 have ultimately gone on to secure asylum under rights guaranteed by a network of laws and international agreements, including the UK Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention.

2. Why is it a political issue?

The influx underscores the country’s failure to gain control over its borders, a central argument for the 2016 decision to leave the European Union. That’s particularly embarrassing for Sunak’s Conservative Party, which is dominated by Brexit-backers who pushed for a harder break with Brussels. It also poses a headache for Sunak ahead of a general election expected next year, since one of the Tories’ key election pledges in 2019 was to reduce net migration. Instead, it soared to a record 745,000 last year, although a vast majority came via legal routes.

3. What’s at stake?

The asylum crisis feeds public concern about record levels of legal migration, as the government allows employers to bring in workers, students and their dependents from places like India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the US, in part to replace missing Europeans. Two-in-10 Britons say “immigration and asylum” is the single biggest issue facing the country, according to polling from YouGov, second only to the economy. The Conservatives are also facing a challenge from the right by the anti-immigration party Reform UK, which is backed by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage. Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his five key pledges and also recently taken steps to cut back legal migration.

4. What’s the UK’s deal with Rwanda?

The government signed an agreement with Rwanda that would see it send asylum-seekers to the country 13.4 million to have their cases decided. The UK is paying some £290 million ($364 million) to facilitate the program, funding upgrades to the Hope Hostel in the capital Kigali and supporting local economic growth. Rwanda wants to demonstrate its successful emergence from civil war and colonial rule by Belgium. The deal offers President Paul Kagame a chance to present himself on the global stage an effective leader who can help the West address a tricky political problem.

5. Why Rwanda?

The short answer is no one else wanted the job. The Johnson administration initially devised a program that would allow the UK to choose from several destinations. The government also considered deals with Ghana, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria and Morocco, media including the Daily Telegraph have reported. It also investigated the possibility of sending migrants to Ascension Island, a small British territory in the Atlantic Ocean 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa. But this was rejected because of cost and the need to build and staff facilities on the sparsely populated island. Israel had sent migrants to Rwanda under a controversial “voluntary departure” system from 2013 to 2018 and Denmark also considered its own deportation agreement with the country.

6. How many would go?

Rwanda would take a tiny fraction of those who are currently arriving in the UK. The country could house about 200 migrants initially, although that number would be expected to rise. The UK government argues the real value would be in deterrence. Asylum-seekers would be more likely to stay in France if they feared there was a significant chance of being rerouted to Africa. Critics have also said that tactic is playing on people’s outdated perception that Rwanda is still riven by active conflict.

7. How much will the UK-Rwanda deal cost?

The government hasn’t detailed how much the Rwanda plan would cost going forward, although it estimated earlier this year that relocations would cost £170,000 per person. That means the program would only break even if it deterred one-third of possible asylum-seekers, according to the Migration Observatory. There’s now a backlog of more than 165,000 cases pending, as the government prioritizes its Rwanda plan. It’s costing taxpayers £8 million a day to house them in hotels, detention centers and even a barge.

8. Why has the plan been blocked?

In June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg dramatically blocked the first from leaving for Rwanda on the grounds that the policy hadn’t been tested in British courts. Challenges made then wended their way through the UK legal system until finally the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Sunak’s plan was unlawful because Rwanda couldn’t be considered a safe country. The key concern wasn’t Rwanda’s history of unrest, but the risk of “refoulement” — or migrants being sent to a country where they’re likely to face prosecution. The court cited evidence that Rwanda had failed to abide by assurances against such transfers that it had given to Israel.

9. What is Sunak’s plan now?

The prime minister has vowed to overcome the court’s decision, signing a new treaty with Rwanda that allows British lawyers to oversee asylum procedures and committing the country to sending any rejected migrants back the UK. Sunak has also proposed legislation that would unilaterally declare Rwanda safe and strip migrants of access to the courts in all but the most extreme cases. However, he stopped short of “dis-applying” the ECHR entirely from asylum cases, as some more right-wing members of his party demanded. The bill has also been questioned by some moderate Conservatives who fear it goes too far in bypassing the courts and undermining people’s right to due process. After passing a preliminary vote in the House of Commons on Dec. 12, it could clear the chamber as soon as January.

--With assistance from Stuart Biggs, Andrew Atkinson and Michael Ovaska.

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