LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Conservative government has struck a deal with Rwanda to send some asylum-seekers thousands of miles away to the East African country, a move that opposition politicians and refugee groups condemned as inhumane, unworkable and a waste of public money.
Home Secretary Priti Patel visited the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on Thursday to sign what the two countries called an “economic development partnership.” The plan will see some people who arrive in Britain as stowaways on trucks or in small boats across the English Channel picked up by the U.K. government and flown 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) to Rwanda, apparently for good.
Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, either by hiding on trucks or ferries, or — increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic shut down other routes in 2020 — in dinghies and other small boats organized by smugglers. More than 28,000 people entered the U.K. on small boats last year, up from 8,500 in 2020. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said action was needed to stop “vile people smugglers (who) are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard.”
In a speech near the Channel coast, Johnson said “anyone entering the U.K. illegally … may now be relocated to Rwanda.”
The Rwandan government said the agreement would initially last for five years, and Britain had paid 120 million pounds ($158 million) up front to pay 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 is already home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries including Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.
Johnson denied that the plan was “lacking in compassion” but acknowledged 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 that culminated in the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and the Hutus who tried to protect them were killed. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized President Paul Kagame’s current government for being repressive.
Johnson, however, insisted that Rwanda had “totally transformed” in the last two decades.
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 U.K. from a safe country such as France. Not all such arrivals will be considered suitable to be sent to Rwanda; it was unclear what the criteria for making the decisions would be.
Previous policies of sending refugee applicants abroad have been highly controversial.
In 2013, Australia began sending asylum-seekers attempting to reach the country by boat to Papua New Guinea and the tiny atoll of Nauru, vowing that none would be allowed to settle in Australia. The policy all but ended the people-smuggling ocean route from Southeast Asia, but was widely criticized as a cruel abrogation of Australia’s international obligations.
Israel sent several thousand people to Rwanda and Uganda under a contentious and secretive “voluntary” scheme between 2014 and 2017. Few are believed to have remained there, with many trying to reach Europe.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee director at Amnesty International U.K., said the British government’s “shockingly ill-conceived idea will go far further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money.”
The chief executive of the U.K.-based Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, called it “dangerous, cruel and inhumane.”
Rwandan opposition figure Victoire Ingabire told the AP that her government’s decision to take in migrants was questionable, given that the country is also a source of refugees.
“Rwanda has consistently ranked (as) one of the world’s safest nations, but at the same time consistently a country where its inhabitants are unhappy,” she said.
The British and French governments have worked for years to stop the cross-Channel journeys, without much success, often swapping accusations about who is to blame for the failure.
Britain’s Conservative government has floated proposals, not all of them workable, including building a wave machine in the Channel to drive boats back. Johnson said Thursday that the Royal Navy would take charge of responding to small-boat crossings, but that the idea of pushing vessels back towards France had been rejected as too dangerous.
Several earlier proposed locations for the U.K. to send migrants to — including the remote Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar — were rejected, at times angrily, by the nations in question.
The Rwanda plan faces hurdles both in Britain’s Parliament and in the courts. Johnson’s Conservative government has introduced a tough new immigration bill that would make it more difficult for people who enter the country by unauthorized routes to claim asylum and would allow asylum-seekers to be screened abroad. It has not yet been approved by Parliament, with the House of Lords seeking to dilute some of its most draconian provisions.
Opposition politicians accused the government of trying to distract attention from a scandal over government parties that breached pandemic lockdown rules. Johnson is resisting calls to resign after being fined by police over the parties.
Labour Party lawmaker Lucy Powell said the Rwanda plan might please some Conservative supporters and grab headlines, but was “unworkable, expensive and unethical.”
“I think this is less about dealing with small boats and more about dealing with the prime minister’s own sinking boat,” Powell told the BBC.
Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda and Andy Meldrum in Johannesburg, South Africa contributed to this story.
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