In a speech on April 14, 2022, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently announced he would be stepping down, unveiled the government’s new strategy for managing the migration of asylum seekers. Johnson introduced the new Nationality and Borders Bill, under which asylum seekers who enter the U.K. illegally could be relocated to Rwanda to have their claims processed. This means that non-Rwandans seeking refuge in the U.K. now face the possibility of being deported to a country to which they have no connection. This new policy has received much backlash from journalists and human rights organisations, who cite several legal and ethical concerns.
The Nationality and Borders Bill
The controversial new policy aims to remedy several problems with the U.K.’s immigration and refugee systems, such as “uncontrolled” illegal migration patterns. The policy also aims to fix what Johnson describes as “the most tragic of all forms of illegal migration:” the smuggling of asylum seekers across the English Channel by boat from France. According to the U.K. government, 28,526 people were found to have illegally crossed or were smuggled across the Channel by boat in 2021. Johnson stated that seven out of ten of those people were single men under 40, notably from Iran (30%), Iraq (21%), Eritrea (11%), and Syria (9%). This new policy would disproportionately affect refugees from the Global South.
The Rwandan strategy will cost the British government £120 million upfront, plus more money over time for each person deported to Rwanda. In passing the bill, the government would also allocate a further £50 million to the Royal Navy for border security and surveillance along the Channel. Rather than using that money to provide safer settlement and a path to citizenship for asylum seekers in the U.K., the government plans to spend taxpayers’ money on expanding the violent process of deportation and surveillance.
The policy also allocates £0.5 billion to expand detention centres so that officials can further control and deport asylum seekers. Existing detention centres in the U.K. have repeatedly been the subject of human rights concerns as detainees have consistently expressed concerns about their poor living conditions, mental health crises, unlawful detainment, and a lack of transparent legal processes. The poor conditions and the unnecessary red tape within the refugee process is a deliberate attempt to exclude, police, and criminalise those seeking refuge within the U.K. According to Johnson, however, these barriers exist due to insufficient resources. Johnson argued, “Our compassion may be infinite but our capacity to help people is not,” and, “We can’t ask the British taxpayer to write a blank cheque to cover the costs of anyone who might want to come and live here.” Yet, the British government was able to find hundreds of millions of pounds within their budget for border policing, detention, and deportation.
The Rwandan Response
The U.K. chose Rwanda for this policy based on positive economic development trends captured by the International Monetary Fund. Johnson explained that it “is one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognised for its record on welcoming and integrating migrants.” The Rwandan government accepted this new migration policy as a step towards creating a diplomatic relationship with the U.K. under the guise of humanitarian development. It enables Rwanda to position itself as a leading country in refugee and migration policy. For the United Kingdom, however, this plan enables the government to use migration as a political tool to gain control within a region of interest.
For asylum seekers, this new policy is a terrifying and dangerous reality. Many refugees being held in detention centres in the U.K. are now on hunger strike, citing severe mental health decline with the announcement of being deported to Rwanda. For instance, a Syrian asylum seeker who is being held at the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre and has been ordered to be deported to Rwanda says that he will commit suicide if it happens. Like him, other refugees are confused as to why they are being sent to a country with little language and cultural similarities to the U.K. or to the countries that they are from. Asylum seekers fleeing persecution from African countries now fear the possibility of being sent back to the continent after spending so much money and undertaking an incredibly dangerous journey to reach the U.K.
Human Rights Concerns and Backlash
Human rights activists continue to voice their opposition to the Nationality and Borders Bill. They argue that the new policy feeds on anti-refugee propaganda and a false public perception surrounding “uncontrolled” immigration. Esra Ozkan and Sanne Stevens, co-directors of the London School of Economic’s Justice, Equity and Technology Project, emphasize how “immigration is actively constructed as an existential threat to society, that needs to be policed into control [through] a vast border security apparatus.” Immigration and refugee resettlement are stigmatised as a result of restrictive policies and governments’ unwillingness to expand asylum protections for refugees. Activists argue that there are already very few legal paths to protection for most asylum seekers in the U.K. The majority of the world’s refugees are situated in countries across the Middle East and Africa, with refugees in the United Kingdom only making up 0.26% of its total population. The new policy would further restrict refugees’ ability to seek protection in the U.K. and would subject them to unnecessary mental health distress and persecution.
As part of the new policy, the first plane of refugees to be deported to Rwanda was scheduled to leave on June 14, 2022. Before it could take off, it was halted due to a last-minute command by the European Court of Human Rights to allow the Court more time to determine whether the move was unlawful. The failed deportation flight, a cruel and unproductive attempt to impose control over a vulnerable group of people, cost Britains an estimated £500,000. The Court argued that there was “a real risk of irreversible harm” to the rights and livelihoods of the individuals set for deportation. These people now await their futures in detention centres while authorities debate their asylum status.
The United Kingdom’s Colonial Legacy
The United Kingdom has a long history of colonialism and imperialism, which destabilised many of its former colonies. Prior to the decolonization era (1945-1960), where many Asian and African states fought for and gained independence from European colonial rule, citizens of Britain’s colonies often migrated to the U.K.. During decolonization, the U.K. implemented increasingly exclusionary migration controls and expanded deportation efforts in an attempt to counter what they saw as security threats associated with the fall of the British Empire. European imperialism has influenced many of the present-day conflicts, poverty, and insecurity globally. As a consequence of this violent legacy, the British government has a responsibility to accept and support the resettlement of refugees fleeing persecution around the world. Despite this, the U.K.’s migration policy offloads its responsibility to support asylum seekers to the Rwandan state, effectively dumping unwanted refugees into another government’s hands.
Shipping asylum seekers to another country deprives them of their agency and their right to choose their country of refuge, as is protected under the International Refugee Convention. Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, once deportees have landed in Rwanda, they will not be eligible for protection under U.K. law and will have to appeal to Rwandan officials to accept their refugee claim. If denied refugee status in Rwanda, they could be deported again to another country where they risk persecution. Instead, asylum seekers should be afforded the right to seek refuge in the U.K. if they so choose, and not fear the consequence of being deported to whichever country has the space to take them.
Clear biases also exist in the U.K.’s present immigration policies. The British Home Office has issued 135,900 visas to Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The majority of these refugees are women and children, as men ages 18-60 have been conscripted to fight in the Ukrainian forces. As the new Rwandan policy targets men ages 18-40, it would not restrict the refugees fleeing Eastern Europe, but rather it would directly target refugees fleeing the Global South. It is evident that the British immigration policy is discriminatory and favours asylum seekers based on their race, religion, and nationality. While it is necessary and important for the U.K. to support refugees from majority-Christian, European countries, that same consideration should be extended to all refugees, regardless of their background.
Patterns of Violence in Migration Policies
Unfortunately, offloading refugees to offshore detention centres is not an isolated incident. The new U.K. policy appears to be taking a page out of the Australian playbook. For years, Australia has been sending asylum seekers to regional processing centres located on Christmas Island and the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to process refugee claims. These offshore detention facilities have been condemned for appalling human rights violations including “the shocking cases of beatings, self-harm, sexual assault, child abuse and inhuman living conditions suffered by the refugees.”
Unsurprisingly, these patterns of violence against immigrants and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom do not only affect single men crossing the English Channel. The government has also been targeting women, many of whom have resided in the U.K. for decades and have children who are British citizens, by deporting them to countries such as Nigeria and Ghana. These women would face a series of human rights violations, including persecution based on their religion, sexual orientation, and gender if they were to be sent back to their home countries in West Africa. The British Home Office maintains that they only deport “individuals to their country of origin when the Home Office and, where applicable, the courts deem it is safe to do so.” Yet, this is not the case. Despite the backlash, the British government does not appear to be concerned with the human rights violations that these women will face upon deportation. A violent legacy of imperialism and colonialism permeates the United Kingdom’s refugee policies. The British government consistently enacts laws that hinder the ability of asylum seekers from the Global South to secure protection in the U.K. If the U.K. wishes to live up to “the great British tradition of providing sanctuary to those in need” as Boris Johnson so boldly claims, then the refugee policies need to reflect that. The United Kingdom has a responsibility to accept and support refugees fleeing persecution in every country, not simply just those fleeing Eastern Europe. Rather than spending millions of pounds on expanding surveillance, deportations, and detention facilities, officials should reallocate those funds to support the safe settlement of refugees in the U.K. and provide more accessible paths to citizenship.
Edited by Light Naing