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Britain’s Rwanda Deportation Policy Is a Cruel, Expensive Failure

Boris Johnson’s offshoring of asylum-seekers won’t stop the human smuggling trade—or deter people fleeing tyranny who are intent on reaching Britain.

By , a journalist covering migration, politics, and human rights.
An empty inflatable  boat after migrants were rescued by the Abeille Languedoc—an ocean-going tugboat—following a failed crossing of the English Channel from France to Britain on May 9.
An empty inflatable boat after migrants were rescued by the Abeille Languedoc—an ocean-going tugboat—following a failed crossing of the English Channel from France to Britain on May 9.
An empty inflatable boat after migrants were rescued by the Abeille Languedoc—an ocean-going tugboat—following a failed crossing of the English Channel from France to Britain on May 9. SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images

On June 14, a jet chartered by the British government to forcibly deport asylum-seekers 4,000 miles away to a Central African police state sat on a runway at a military base in southern England. Nearly 50 men had been informed they would be on the flight, but in the preceding days a flurry of legal challenges ensured that just seven were boarded. Some allege they were harnessed and assaulted.

A few hours before takeoff, a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights—part-established by Britain after World War II, it is independent from the European Union and therefore holds sway post-Brexit—allowed the remaining passengers to disembark and be spared deportation; for now they remain detained and in limbo. The plane returned to its home base in Spain empty save for its crew—and a bill for the taxpayer of up to 500,000 pounds (around $615,000). It was a perfect metaphor for current British asylum policy: a cruel, expensive, and pointless spectacle.

This was meant to be the inaugural flight showcasing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new strategy to solve the issue of asylum-seekers arriving irregularly on small, inflatable boats—over 10,000 of whom have already crossed this year. Under a deal signed with the Rwandan government in April, migrants arriving using unauthorized routes will be sent on a one-way ticket to Kigali, Rwanda. This is not, as it is often erroneously described, offshore processing as previously practiced by Australia where asylum-seekers were taken to Pacific islands while their asylum cases were pending.

On June 14, a jet chartered by the British government to forcibly deport asylum-seekers 4,000 miles away to a Central African police state sat on a runway at a military base in southern England. Nearly 50 men had been informed they would be on the flight, but in the preceding days a flurry of legal challenges ensured that just seven were boarded. Some allege they were harnessed and assaulted.

A few hours before takeoff, a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights—part-established by Britain after World War II, it is independent from the European Union and therefore holds sway post-Brexit—allowed the remaining passengers to disembark and be spared deportation; for now they remain detained and in limbo. The plane returned to its home base in Spain empty save for its crew—and a bill for the taxpayer of up to 500,000 pounds (around $615,000). It was a perfect metaphor for current British asylum policy: a cruel, expensive, and pointless spectacle.

This was meant to be the inaugural flight showcasing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new strategy to solve the issue of asylum-seekers arriving irregularly on small, inflatable boats—over 10,000 of whom have already crossed this year. Under a deal signed with the Rwandan government in April, migrants arriving using unauthorized routes will be sent on a one-way ticket to Kigali, Rwanda. This is not, as it is often erroneously described, offshore processing as previously practiced by Australia where asylum-seekers were taken to Pacific islands while their asylum cases were pending.

While refugee rights advocates may be relieved at the government’s current ineptitude, it could portend worse things to come.

They will not be allowed to claim asylum in Britain at all, only in Rwanda. In addition to the costs of the flights, the U.K. government has handed Rwanda a 120,000-pound payment and will cover the costs, up to 12,000 pounds, for every asylum-seeker flown there—incidentally the same sum it costs to process an asylum case in the United Kingdom. This is ostensibly to deter asylum-seekers from coming and to break the people-smuggling business model.

The Rwandan government’s record of hosting refugees was touted as a guarantee that rights would be respected. Unfortunately, the U.K. Home Office sent deceptive letters to potential deportees claiming that the U.N. refugee agency is involved with and supports the policy. It is not and does not, due to concerns over access to asylum procedures and substandard treatment for those who complain. (In 2018, 12 Congolese refugees were shot dead by security forces after protesting over food rations.)

The British government’s own advice states that Rwanda is not conducting credible investigations into “allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.” The agency also expressed worry over the risk of refoulement—where refugees could be sent onward by Rwanda to countries where they risk persecution.

All evidence suggests that the Rwanda policy will not achieve its stated aims. Asylum-seekers intent on reaching Britain are rarely cognizant of complex national asylum regulations and therefore unlikely to be deterred by something of which they are unaware. Government officials acknowledge that perhaps only hundreds of people will be sent to Rwanda each year, meaning that asylum-seekers still have good odds to stay in the U.K. It is doubtful many will wish to remain in Rwanda, and so they will be approached by people-smugglers offering to spirit them out, as happened when Israel adopted a refugee dumping policy there throughout the 2010s.

Increasingly mutinous civil servants in the Home Office say the policy itself feels like trafficking. Currently only men have been selected for deportation—and, inevitably, more women and children are now arriving in boats.

But this all assumes that the policy is designed to fulfill its stated aims of preventing smuggled journeys in the first place. It isn’t. It is a crude gimmick to provoke endless disputes and avoid grappling with the reality of how and why people move.


Irregular immigration is a key voter concern in the U.K. but the extreme nature of the Rwanda gambit, rushed out even before British courts could make a judgement on its lawfulness, was always destined to meet heavy resistance. But Johnson relishes the fight, accusing immigration lawyers of “abetting … criminal gangs,” prompting outrage from the English and Welsh Bar Council. (Some lawyers received death threats.) The archbishop of Canterbury—the Church of England’s most senior bishop—thundered that the policy “cannot stand the judgement of God.” Even the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, was reported to have privately called the deportation deal “appalling.”

This level of institutional opprobrium would have caused other governments to pause for thought. But, long unmoored from traditional conservative values, this is a populist, shame-free administration schooled on the Brexit playbook—appeal to the base and smear all criticism as the bleating of out-of-touch elites. But perpetual trolling is not a sustainable strategy.

Eventually, die-hard fans will tire of the showboating and start wondering why the things the government promised haven’t happened. Early polling already suggests that 21 percent of Conservative voters think the Rwanda plan is unworkable before it has even started, and Tories appear nearly evenly split when it comes to prioritizing fairness or deterrence in asylum policy. It won’t be long before a newspaper interviews someone on a French beach trying to reach the U.K., who months before had been sent to Rwanda.

And while refugee rights advocates may be relieved at the government’s current ineptitude, it could portend worse things to come. British vessels have not physically pushed back refugee boats in the English Channel. Deportees are not automatically locked up when they arrive in Rwanda. The U.K. has not left the European Convention on Human Rights. A viable far-right party has not emerged.

None of these things has happened yet, but by dismissing humane approaches to asylum and proposing undeliverable cruel stunts, the risk of more extreme measures being employed becomes higher. This would not be the first unpopular government, mired in near-daily ethics and corruption scandals, to start erecting immigration scarecrows. On June 23, the day that Conservatives lost two crucial by-elections, the prime minister was coincidentally at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda. It is as if the country’s fate is to be fused with Johnson’s electoral meltdown.

Though the policy is a squalid piece of theatrics, it has real consequences. I recently viewed a video of someone receiving a call from an asylum-seeker who had been forced, apparently handcuffed and harnessed, onto the recently canceled flight. The anguished screaming is disturbing to hear. I spoke with young Afghans arbitrarily sent to a detention center upon arrival last month. Both fled the Taliban takeover last year, running the wretched gauntlet of violent border guards, to join family in the U.K. Instead of sanctuary, they were given a bizarre leaflet informing them of their imminent deportation to Rwanda, a country with a “striking landscape” and “a wide array of wildlife and biodiversity.”

It won’t be long before a newspaper interviews someone on a French beach trying to reach the U.K., who months before had been sent to Rwanda.

Both had never heard of the Rwanda policy or indeed the country itself; one thought it was a city in England. Their lawyers—rather than immigration officials—informed them of the bad news, and they are now in the depths of depression. According to the latest government data, around 91 percent of Afghan applicants receive some sort of asylum or protection in the U.K. But under the new migration plans the merits of your case are not even heard; instead, you are punished with banishment to Rwanda.

The scheme’s advocates accuse critics of lacking alternative solutions. But there are plenty: humanitarian visas, regional centers or online platforms to apply for asylum outside of the country, expanded community sponsorship programs, and labor pathways for circular migration—the kind of mechanisms that were rightly rolled out at speed and scale to Ukrainians, Hong Kongers, and (to a lesser extent) Afghans but denied to almost everyone else including other victims of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombs in Syria.

One of the first people due to be deported was an Iranian police chief who allegedly fled after defying the regime’s orders to shoot peaceful protesters. There was no clear legal option to reach the U.K., and he now fears being targeted by Iranian agents should he be sent to Rwanda.

Apart from a few narrow avenues, the only way to apply for U.K. asylum is to physically get there, and that is why people take treacherous boat journeys. The British government is punishing the smugglers’ victims rather than outbidding them with a safe and legal service. Britain’s geography means that people must pass through different countries to get there, but there is no requirement for them to stop en route. Indeed, if every country were to abdicate its responsibility for manageable numbers of persecuted people by trying to keep them stuck on their neighbors’ territory, then refugees would never escape the clutches of their oppressors in the first place.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU was registering some of the highest numbers of asylum claims since the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 despite years of militarized borders, violent pushback policies, and migration deals signed with shady regimes. Serious political leaders would level with their voters and admit the sad reality that even if humane and controlled measures were enacted, some smuggling and desperate journeys would still take place. Instead, voters are constantly told that it’s possible to make irregular migration magically disappear, which is as naive as wishing away scarcity, authoritarianism, and conflict.

Despotic regimes drive out their own people, only for Western democracies to play politics with their lives. Most people fleeing suffering never reach wealthy countries; the small percentage who do should be given a fair hearing rather than being traded in deals that governments sign to score political points.

Andrew Connelly is a journalist covering migration, politics, and human rights. Twitter: @connellyandrew

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