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Proposals to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda are simply unacceptable

3 min read

As a former United Kingdom immigration minister, I have always held the view that a primary responsibility of any government should be to keep the people safe from internal and external threats.

This includes maintaining our borders and ensuring our immigration policies are “firm but fair”. Indeed, I was the first immigration minister to use that phrase. That is certainly what we strived to achieve under my watch and with subsequent ministers, of all parties.

Rules for immigration were clear and enforced without bias, including exercising the powers of removal or deportation in cases of illegality or failure under the rules. The need to improve our rates of removals is something I have always supported. But I have never conflated the issues of immigration and asylum as they are wholly distinct and require different considerations. So, I am a little surprised and disappointed that we seem to have blurred the lines between the two in recent announcements and legislation.

We are in danger of losing our international good reputation

Our immigration rules require applicants wishing to migrate to the UK to prove their fitness and plans for self-sufficiency through employment or in other clearly specified ways. Those that fail to prove their suitability can and should be rejected, and if they arrive in the UK illegally they can and should be deported.

However, those that are fleeing persecution as defined by the UN Convention of 1951 on Refugees must be treated differently. The tests for them to show good cause to be granted refugee status are no less onerous than in the case of some migrants, but the criteria are different.

The UK has a proud record of granting refugee status to both those that come here seeking sanctuary and those who come as part of an international programme (often through the UN) where a crisis has occurred in another place. I had the privilege of being the minister responsible for implementing the Bosnian refugee programme in 1996, where we displayed great willingness to shelter thousands who were in desperate circumstances.

Talk of legality and illegality in relation to asylum seekers is misplaced. No asylum seeker can be illegal per se, although there are others whose criminal activity may have played a part in their situation. These “people traffickers” are beyond contempt – but should not be beyond apprehension.

I have spoken out against some parts of the Nationality and Borders Bill currently before Parliament.

In particular, I have opposed the plans to “offshore” asylum seekers for their claims to be heard. That is especially so if they are sent to a far-away country with which they have no connection. Asylum seekers are not seeking asylum until they make their claim and under international law it is the duty of the state in which they make their application to consider it, not to abrogate responsibility to another.  

Where someone applies for asylum is where that case should be examined. The present government proposals to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda are simply not acceptable. 

What is even more unacceptable is that under these expensive plans even if an asylum seeker requests asylum in the UK and is subsequently granted it in Rwanda, he or she would then be obliged to remain, not in their chosen destination, but in Rwanda itself. Surely not?

Politicians should be careful when dealing with the subject of immigration and asylum. Inevitably it is an emotional as well as important area where misunderstandings abound. These can be exacerbated by actions and words that are either badly constructed or inaccurate.

We are in danger of losing our international good reputation and taking initiatives which are clearly not firm or fair.


Lord Kirkhope is a Conservative peer and former immigration minister. 

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Kirkhope - The House of Lords deserves some respect


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