Britain announced a deal with Rwanda on Thursday to send some asylum-seekers thousands of miles to the East African country for processing.
Opposition politicians and refugee groups condemned the move – which the government says will stop people-smugglers sending desperate migrants on treacherous journeys across the English Channel – as inhumane, unworkable and a waste of public money. The United Nations said it raised “a number of human rights concerns.”
The plan would see some people who arrive in Britain as stowaways on trucks or in small boats picked up by the UK government and flown 6,400 kilometres to Rwanda.
Migrants have long used northern France as a launch point to reach Britain, either by hiding on trucks or ferries, or – increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic shut down other routes in 2020 – on small boats organised by smugglers.
More than 28,000 people entered the UK on boats last year, up from 8,500 in 2020. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.
“Anyone entering the UK illegally … may now be relocated to Rwanda," Johnson said in a speech. Action, he said, was needed to stop “vile people smugglers (who) are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard.”
The Rwandan government said the agreement would initially last for five years, and that Britain had paid 120 million pounds up front for housing and integrating the migrants.
Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta said the agreement “is about ensuring that people are protected, respected, and empowered to further their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they choose.”
He said his country was already home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries including Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.
Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, and competition for land and resources there fuelled decades of ethnic and political tensions that culminated in the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis, and Hutus who tried to protect them, were killed.
Johnson insisted that Rwanda had “totally transformed” in the last two decades. But human rights groups have repeatedly criticised President Paul Kagame’s current government as repressive.
Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the claim Rwanda was a safe country “is not grounded in reality.”
“Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities is commonplace, and fair trial standards are flouted in many cases,” Mudge said.
The chief executive of the UK-based Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, called the scheme “dangerous, cruel and inhumane.”
Britain says relocation decisions will not be based on migrants’ country of origin but on whether they used “illegal or dangerous routes” to reach the UK from a safe country such as France. The government said children would not be sent to the African country.
The United Nations’ human rights office said it had raised its “concerns directly with the UK authorities.”
A spokeswoman for the office said the UK was “shifting ... its responsibilities and obligations under international human rights and refugee law onto a country which is already taking great asylum responsibilities.”
Opposition lawmaker Lucy Powell said the Rwanda plan might please some voters and grab headlines, but was "unworkable, expensive and unethical.” (AP)