In this week’s episode, Declarations host Neema Jayasinghe is joined by panellist Veronica-Nicolle Hera to discuss the UK-Rwanda asylum agreement with guests Dr. Peter Walsh and Colin Yeo. The Rwanda Asylum Plan – UK’s most controversial migration policy in recent years – saw 99 asylum seekers whose claims were declared ‘inadmissible’ scheduled to embark on a flight relocating them to Rwanda in June 2022. While never enacted, the plan attracted widespread media attention and the criticism of many NGOs fighting for migrants’ rights. Under the scheme, the UK’s legal responsibilities for such people would end once they have been relocated and they will not be able to apply for asylum in the UK. Instead, they would have to apply for asylum in Rwanda with no option to return. Our guests discuss the origin of this policy, its problematic nature, and what could be done in the future to avoid similar mistakes.

‘The Rwanda Plan is designed not to achieve a goal, but to send a message.’

Dr. Peter Walsh

The conversation begins with an outline of the current state of affairs. Colin aptly notes that the High Court upheld the government’s Rwanda Plan and that there is an ongoing appeal in place. This is an actively developing situation with many further appeals likely, and rumours of further legislation on the matter to be released. Regarding the broader immigration context of this policy, Peter adds that the number of individuals crossing the English Channel from France in small boats has risen quite substantially. In the last year alone, these numbers sat at 45,000 individuals.

‘Many agree it’s a blatant violation, but not the judges of the High Court who upheld the government’s policy and found that it breached neither human rights laws nor the Refugee Convention.’

Colin Yeo

The Rwanda Plan was found by the High Court to not be in breach of the Refugee Convention. Colin notes that may be partially explained by its very nature as just the second international convention drafted after the Second World War. In particular, the Refugee Convention is characterised by a poor enforcement mechanism and rather an ambiguous language that will challenge lawyers involved in the case.

Colin continues by outlining what he sees as the greatest problems within the Rwanda Plan, which can be helpfully divided into moral and practical concerns. In a moral capacity, the enforcement of removal will be – at least implicitly – a violent affair that may set a dangerous precedent for the international community to follow suit. On a more practical level, there is no substantial evidence that suggests the plan would work effectively.

‘The UK Immigration Minister recently admitted that Rwanda currently has the capacity to accommodate just 200 people at one time.’

Dr. Peter Walsh

Peter builds upon Colin’s notion of practical effectiveness, citing the lack of Rwandan processing capacity at a time when arrivals to the UK are in the tens of thousands. If arrivals continue at such a level, it would suggest the chance of any one individual being removed is likely to be very small. As such, these numbers would surely have to be scaled up tremendously for the policy to achieve the desired deterrent effect. Peter also mentions the fact that once transferred to Rwanda, individuals will not be detained and are free to leave if they so choose. A similar Israeli-Rwanda plan is an interesting case study where almost all ‘voluntary departure’ scheme participants left Rwanda.

Yet, as previously noted, the High Court refused to block the 14th of June flight to Rwanda citing a material public interest in the process. Colin states that many commentators found this surprising as it seemed to fail a proper legal test to maintain the status quo before a formal decision is made. Eventually, one claimant brought a Rule 39 application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the flight was halted due to the imminent risk of irreparable harm.

‘It is currently taking years for asylum decisions to be reached.’

Colin Yeo

Both Colin and Peter argue that the Rwanda plan diverts resources and distracts attention from more pressing issues within the UK asylum system. Colin expresses that there is currently a backlog of about 150,000 initial decisions that have not been made by the Home Office, revealing that the number one problem is the delay in the system. A majority of these decisions are positive, yet applicants are crippled both socially and financially before eventually being integrated into society as refugees. Peter notes that alongside timing concerns, the decision-making process also seems ineffective in terms of quality. Recent statistics suggest that over 50% of appeals are allowed, meaning the initial Home Office decision is deemed incorrect by a judge.

‘The UK’s refugee resettlement programmes have not picked up post-pandemic, so 70% fewer people are being resettled.’

Dr. Peter Walsh

Furthermore, another facet of the UK asylum system is refugee resettlement, where individuals are identified by the UN in refugee camps around the world, and then transferred to the UK. Unfortunately, this scheme has failed to operate anywhere close to its pre-pandemic capacity.

This policy can be viewed as a continuation of the hostile and restricted asylum environment which goes back to at least the Blair administration. There has been a recent tendency to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ refugees, with the government essentially not processing or accepting asylum claims from people who arrive without pre-authorisation, but at the same time setting up extensive schemes for Ukrainians. Yet, Colin cautions against complaining about the way Ukrainians have been treated, which he views as controversial in itself.

‘We should welcome the fact that Ukrainians are being treated generously, and look at how that can be expanded to other nationalities as well.’

Colin Yeo

To conclude, our guests provide their thoughts on how discriminatory migration policies can be prevented from taking shape again. Peter feels that an evidence-based policy approach will ensure similar shortfalls do not occur. The current assumption that asylum seekers have a detailed knowledge of deterrent policy is rather flawed. Instead, many are drawn to the UK due to familial or language ties, and the perception of the UK as a safe and tolerant country.

Colin partially disagrees with Peter on this point, noting that many policymakers are not all that interested in producing genuinely effective asylum policies. In this sense, the Rwanda Plan is an example of symbolic policy-making that simply looks to send the message that the UK is tough on asylum seekers. Hence, the politics of the issue must be engaged with more effectively by the wider sector to prevent similar future policy. 

Our Guests

Dr. Peter Walsh is Senior Researcher at The Migration Observatory, and Departmental Lecturer in Migration Studies, University of Oxford. He has authored over forty reports and articles on UK immigration policy.

Colin Yeo is an immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer, and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London. He is also the founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.

Our Panellist

Veronica-Nicolle Hera is a PhD student whose research focusses on public perceptions of trust in government across democracies and authoritarian regimes. Her interest in human rights stems from her work with the3million advocating for the rights of EU citizens in the UK.