Geneva - The United Kingdom government’s insistence on advancing its “Rwanda Plan” for the deportation of asylum seekers is a regressive step that undermines decades of progress in refugee protection. Both the legality and morality of this plan are seriously flawed and represent an assault on the very foundation of international law. Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor urges the UK to uphold its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, respect the inherent dignity and rights of asylum seekers, and refrain from penalizing individuals based on the manner of their entry.

The UK government announced a Memorandum of Understanding in April 2022 with the government of Rwanda, titled Migration and Economic Development Partnership. This was later upgraded to a formal treaty, re-named as the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership, and signed by the UK Home Secretary and Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in December 2023. 

The Bill provided that asylum seekers who have made “unauthorised journeys” (without a visa or other permission) to the UK would be sent to the east-central African country, where their asylum claims would be heard and determined. Under this arrangement, it would be the responsibility of the Rwandan asylum system to consider these people’s need of international protection.

The Bill received a green light in December 2022 when the UK court ruled in favour of the Rwanda policy, finding it consistent with international and domestic legal requirements, provided that a proper consideration of the circumstances of each asylum seeker was undertaken before any removal.

The applicants appealed against the decision, however, and it was overturned by the Court of Appeal

The Court held that the policy was unlawful since Rwanda was not a safe country, as there was a real risk that asylum seekers transferred there would be subject to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, in open breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This time the authorities appealed to the final instance in the UK, the Supreme Court, which passed its judgement unanimously on 15 November 2023. The Supreme Court concurred with the Court of Appeal that the plan was unlawful and Rwanda was not a safe country as a destination for asylum seekers, blocking the sending of any of them there. 

The UK-Rwanda Bill has stirred up much public debate, not only about its morality, but also its legality. In June 2022, Britain’s first scheduled flight to transport asylum seekers to Rwanda was halted by last-minute injunctions from the European Human Rights Court, as migrants onboard would “face a real risk of irreversible harm”.

Yet the legality of the deportation plan seems to still be open to debate, as on the same day as the June 2022 judgement, the Prime Minister announced that he would immediately enter into a legally binding agreement with Rwanda and introduce new emergency legislation confirming that Rwanda is a safe country to which to send asylum seekers.

In December 2023, the Prime Minister agreed a new treaty with Rwanda and brought forward new legislation to overcome the protection gaps identified by the Supreme Court. The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act was tabled before Parliament alongside the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership Treaty, declaring Rwanda a safe country.

The new agreement expressly prohibits the transfer of asylum seekers who have already been transferred to Rwanda to anywhere else, except back to the UK. This provision as well as the improved form of a legally binding treaty aim at convincing the UK courts of the appropriateness of the plan, but it seems less than insufficient.

For instance, the Bill cannot prevent a person threatened with removal to Rwanda from applying to the European Court of Human Rights, which has the power to issue interim measures binding on the UK.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact of the Bill on Northern Ireland and Ireland in general, considering that a growing number of migrants are crossing the border in the hope of avoiding deportation to Rwanda.

“The UK-Rwanda Partnership Treaty proposes an asylum model that undermines the international refugee protection systemestablished after World War II,” explained Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum researcher at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. “It is not compatible with international refugee law; on the contrary, it’s in line with the growing, and failing, externalisation policies that dominate, both desperately and enthusiastically, the EU migration and asylum framework.”

Concluded Pugliese, “Externalising borders and asylum obligations poses serious risks for the safety of asylum seekers and refugees and doesn’t succeed at tidying migration flows and reducing arrivals. The problem is that they are forced to arrive, and the answer is not to send them away.”

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor calls on the United Kingdom to respect the safeguards to which asylum seekers are entitled, in particular the right to seek and enjoy asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, including non-rejection at the frontier and the admission of asylum seekers to States. Euro-Med Monitor recallsthat the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, prohibits penalization on account of irregular entry to a country, meaning that the way a person travels to the UK should not affect their asylum claim or procedure.