LONDON (AP) – Britain on Thursday announced an agreement with Rwanda to send some asylum seekers thousands of kilometers to the East African country – a plan it said would stop human traffickers sending desperate migrants on treacherous journeys across the English Channel.
British opposition politicians and refugee groups condemned the move as inhumane, useless and a waste of public money, and the UN said it raised “a number of human rights concerns”.
The plan would see some people arriving in the UK as blind passengers on trucks or in small boats, picked up by the British government and flown 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) to Rwanda, apparently forever.
Critics accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of using the question to divert attention from a scandal over government meetings that broke pandemic shutdown rules. Johnson opposes calls to resign after being fined by police this week for the parties.
Migrants have long used northern France as a starting point to reach Britain, either by hiding on trucks or ferries, or – increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic closed other routes in 2020 – in small boats organized by smugglers. More than 28,000 people entered the UK in both last year, up from 8,500 in 2020. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.
On Thursday, dozens of men, women and children were picked up by British lifeboats and brought ashore at the canal harbor in Dover when Johnson, who spoke only a few miles away, outlined the plan.
“Anyone entering Britain illegally … can now be relocated to Rwanda,” Johnson said in a speech to troops and Coast Guard members at an airport near Dover. Action, he said, was needed to stop “disgusting human traffickers (who) abuse the vulnerable and turn the Channel into a watery cemetery.”
The Rwandan government said the agreement would initially last for five years and Britain had paid £ 120 million ($ 158 million) in advance to pay for housing and integrate the migrants.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta said the agreement “is about ensuring that people are protected, respected and empowered to advance their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they so choose.”
He said his country is already home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries including Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.
Johnson denied that the plan “lacked compassion”, but acknowledged that it would inevitably face legal challenges and would not take effect immediately.
Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, and competition for land and resources there fueled decades of ethnic and political tensions, culminating in the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutus trying to protect them.
Johnson insisted that Rwanda had “totally transformed” in the last two decades. But human rights groups have repeatedly criticized President Paul Kagame’s current government as oppressive.
Lewis Mudge, director of Central Africa at Human Rights Watch, said the claim that Rwanda was a safe country “is not based on reality.”
“Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities are common, and standards of fair trial are violated in many cases,” Mudge said.
Britain says relocation decisions will not be based on migrants’ country of origin, but on whether they used “illegal or dangerous routes” to reach Britain from a safe country like France. Not all such arrivals will be considered suitable for dispatch to Rwanda; it was unclear what the criteria for making the decisions would be, even though the British government said children would not be sent to the African country.
The UN Office of Human Rights said it had raised its “concerns directly with the UK authorities”.
A spokeswoman for the office said Britain was “shifting … its responsibilities and obligations under international human rights and refugee law to a country which is already taking on a major asylum responsibility.”
Past policies to send refugee applicants abroad have been highly controversial.
In 2013, Australia began sending asylum seekers trying to reach the country by boat to Papua New Guinea and the small atoll of Nauru, promising that no one would be allowed to settle in Australia. The policy almost ended the human-smuggled ocean route from Southeast Asia, but was widely criticized as a cruel repeal of Australia’s international obligations.
Israel sent thousands of people to Rwanda and Uganda under a controversial and secretive “voluntary” scheme between 2014 and 2017. Few are believed to have stayed where many tried to reach Europe.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of refugee affairs at Amnesty International UK, said the British government’s “shockingly ill-conceived idea would go much further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money.”
The executive director of the British Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, called it “dangerous, cruel and inhuman”.
Rwandan opposition figure Victoire Ingabire told the AP that her government’s decision to accept migrants was questionable as the country is also a source of refugees.
The British and French governments have been working for years to stop travel across the Channel, without much success, and have often exchanged accusations as to who is to blame for the failure.
The UK Conservative government has put forward countless proposals, not all of which are feasible, including building a wave machine in the canal to propel boats back. Johnson said Thursday that the Royal Navy would take responsibility for responding to crossings of small boats, but that the idea of pushing ships back towards France had been dismissed as too dangerous.
Several previously proposed sites for Britain to send migrants – including the remote Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar – were rejected, at times angrily, by the nations concerned.
The Rwanda plan faces obstacles both in the UK Parliament and in the courts. Johnson’s Conservative government has introduced a tough new immigration law that will make it harder for people entering the country by unauthorized routes to seek asylum and will allow asylum seekers to be screened abroad. It has not yet been approved by Parliament, and the House of Lords seeks to dilute some of its most draconian provisions.
Labor lawmaker Lucy Powell said the Rwanda plan might please some conservative supporters and make headlines, but it was “impractical, costly and unethical.”
“I think it’s less about handling small boats and more about dealing with the Prime Minister’s own sinking boat,” Powell told the BBC.
Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda, and Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this story.
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