London, United Kingdom – The British government has been accused of trading people as goods after it unveiled a controversial plan to send asylum seekers 6,000 km (3,700 miles) to Rwanda on a one-way ticket.
In a speech on Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “Anyone who has entered the United Kingdom illegally since the beginning of this year can be transferred to a country in the Middle East.”
“Our compassion may be infinite, but it is not our ability to help people,” he said of a hotspot for refugees and migrants landing on British soil across the county and English Channel in southeastern Kent, England.
Johnson said the plan could carry “thousands of refugees” over the years, which would “save countless lives” and curb human trafficking.
However many disagree. Rights groups and refugee organizations quickly exploded the so-called “brutal”, “inhumane” and so-called “neo-colonial” plan, and questioned both its cost to British taxpayers and its impact on migration.
“This is truly shocking and inhumane,” said Steve Waltz-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s director of refugee and immigration rights.
“This plan is not going to reduce the number of refugees. This will lead to a great deal of atrocities and will create very dangerous refugee routes, ”Waltz-Symonds told Al Jazeera.
People traded like ‘goods’
According to the plan, the British government will screen asylum seekers upon arrival and provide Rwandan authorities with their personal information before they are taken to Kigali. The Rwandan government will handle asylum seekers, and if they succeed, asylum seekers will settle in the country.
Some details are still a little dark, but all refugees arriving in the UK by boat will be sent to Rwanda. If their application is successful, they will not be granted refugee status in the UK but will be granted asylum by Rwanda. The losers may be deported to their home country or to another country where they have a right to reside.
Refugees fleeing trial, civil war and torture in the UK have the right to seek refugee status under international treaties. However, they can only seek asylum in the UK on British soil.
Therefore, if the plan is implemented, those fleeing Iraq, Syria, Eritrea or Sudan will be deported to Rwanda before they can seek asylum – which could eventually lead to a sharp decline in asylum applications.
The proposal will come into force after a law is currently passed in parliament criminalizing any refugee entering the country without a valid visa. The law is expected to pass as Johnson’s party enjoys a parliamentary majority.
But Johnson said in his speech that “a strong army of politically motivated lawyers will be in the business of preventing the removal for years to come,” and he expects his plan to be challenged in court.
Globally, less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide have access to secure, direct resettlement through the United Nations.
Bella Changi, director of prevention, a voluntary organization that provides support to detainees in detention, said the rest were forced to cross borders to take their future into their own hands and seek asylum directly.
“When governments try to stop people seeking asylum, those people do not disappear into the air. They are forced to embark on long, dangerous journeys to rebuild their lives, ”Changi told Al Jazeera.
“By knocking on the door of asylum seekers, this government is shirking their responsibilities and adding to the major crisis,” he said.
The UN refugee agency also protested.
“People leaving war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and sympathy. They should not be traded as commodities and transferred overseas for processing,” said Gillian Trix, UNHCR’s High Commissioner for Security.
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, accused the government of “handing over its responsibilities to the former colonies of Europe instead of doing our fair share to help some of the most vulnerable on earth”.
Others, meanwhile, criticized Rwanda’s human rights record.
“There is nothing‘ safe ’or‘ compassionate ’in Boris Johnson’s neo-colonial plan to send refugees to coastal camps in Rwanda, where the government tortures, intimidates and massacres their political opponents and persecutes marginalized people,” Changi said.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Bruda Said Rwanda is going to provide refugees with a decent life of shelter, with the skills they can integrate into our community socially and economically, or be able to integrate into their home country as they decide. Go back to their home countries.
Record more crossings
The language Johnson used in his speech was very familiar. Phrases such as “withdrawal of control of British borders” or “individuals” coming to the UK from the Middle East and Africa were key elements of his appeal to pro-Brexit voters during the 2016 campaign.
However, despite Johnson’s promise to cross the English Channel, the number of visitors to the British coast has increased dramatically in recent years.
More than 28,000 migrants and refugees traveled from Europe to the UK in small boats last year, more than three times the number by 2020.
In November last year, 27 people trying to reach England died in the worst disaster on the canal when their boat sank.
According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll, 60 percent of British citizens are dissatisfied with the government’s immigration policy.
Waltz-Symonds Johnson said he was “more interested in headlines and political gain than the impact of the refugee program.”
The agreement, signed by Home Secretary Priti Patel during a visit to Kigali on Thursday, came as the government has been attracting more Ukrainian refugees to the UK through various visa schemes in the wake of Russia’s invasion in February.
So far, more than 55,000 visas have been issued to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, 16,400 of whom arrived in the UK as of Monday.
Joe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager for the Joint Council for Migrant Welfare, pointed out the difference between the proposed policy and approach to Ukrainian refugees.
“Most of us want people fleeing danger to be treated with dignity and respect – the response of the British public to Ukraine has made that clear,” Gardner told Al Jazeera.
“But instead of welcoming those in need of protection, the deal will deport black and brown people who have fled thousands of miles away in desperate situations,” he said.
Setting a course
The UK is not the only country that has sought to outsource asylum applications. Australia, often cited by British authorities as a source of inspiration for their project, has kept asylum seekers staying by boat in detention centers across the Pacific Islands.
The policy has been widely criticized for causing “immeasurable suffering” to dozens of asylum seekers who commit suicide in the face of severe abuse and inhumane treatment.
Israel entered into secret agreements with Rwanda and Uganda in 2013 to relocate asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. A study by the University of Oxford in 2018 revealed that the arrangement failed when refugees – whose documents were taken away and not provided security – fled Rwanda on a dangerous journey to Europe.
The Danish parliament passed a law in June last year that would allow asylum seekers to be relocated to third countries outside Europe, despite widespread criticism from the European Union, the United Nations and rights groups.
Johnson said the agreement would become “a new international standard” in dealing with migration.
But Amnesty’s Valdes-Symonds warned: “This plan could lead to a dangerous trend for other Western nations to pursue their maritime asylum plans.”