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Is Rwanda safe for refugees?


4 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to stop small boat crossings in the Channel as a key priority for what's left of his premiership.

His strategy is simple. Migrants crossing in small boats to claim asylum in the United Kingdom must be sent to Rwanda as a deterrent to others. He claims that if migrants knew they could not claim asylum in Britain, they would not risk their lives trying to get here and the small boats will stop.

The strategy was dealt a major blow when the Court of Appeal found the deportation plan unlawful. A key concern was the asylum system run by Rwanda that was considered unsafe, as individuals might be returned to their home countries and face persecution or other inhumane treatment when, in fact, they have a good claim for asylum. 

If the government acknowledges that some Rwandans are unsafe in Rwanda, it begs the question why it is so certain it is safe for anybody else

Critics have rightly leapt on its deliverability as a key weakness. Keir Starmer says the plans are "unworkable" for several reasons. The crossings are driven by criminal gangs profiteering off of human misery. Any deterrent strategy should be aimed at ending their evil trade instead of their victims. Even the new economic impact assessment admits any deterrent effect is at best "untested" and may prove counterproductive, as well as eye wateringly expensive with the full cost remaining unknown.

It is somewhat bewildering to see the government has spent £140m on a strategy they claimed would stop the boats based on no hard evidence it can work at all. As small boats continue to cross at a record pace, the government is spending even more political capital on getting the Rwanda strategy up and running. 

With all sides debating the feasibility and affordability of these plans, it might seem there's little new to add except wait for the Supreme Court's decision. Yet there is significant cause for concern for the government buried and overlooked in the latest migration figures that could shift the debate.

Last month, the government set a new record high for net migration at over 600,000. This was more than twice the 229,000 net migration during Labour's last year in office and six times what the Conservatives vowed to deliver 13 years ago. 

While this was widely reported, other data was not and this relates to Rwanda. 

Critics have questioned repeatedly whether Rwanda is a sufficiently safe country for handling applications of asylum seekers who would otherwise have their case heard in Britain. The government has been quick to dismiss these claims as unfounded against a good ally. The Rwandan government claimed it is in fact "one of the safest countries in the world" for refugees.

As an immigration law expert, it has been noticeable that the Home Secretary has not put Rwanda on the "safe list" of countries from which no asylum claim might normally be made. This means that Rwandans can claim asylum here. But if, of course, if the UK government is granting Rwandans asylum here, this would blow apart their reassurances that Rwanda was a safe country. 

Examining the data, it shows that Rwandans are claiming asylum in the UK. Over 40 have done so since 2020. Since 2010, 37 have been granted asylum in the UK and another four were granted humanitarian protection. 

While most have their claims rejected, two facts are clear.  First, Rwandans have been applying for asylum in the UK as recently as the current period right now. Secondly, Rwandans are being granted asylum in the UK. 

These facts matter. They show the government is aware that some individuals are fleeing from Rwanda and it accepts they are refugees granting them sanctuary in Britain. Yet, if the government acknowledges that some Rwandans are unsafe in Rwanda, it begs the question why it is so certain it is safe for anybody else. 

The public has been told that new immigration laws in 2016, 2020, 2022 and now the Illegal Migration Bill are necessary to get the asylum system fixed. However, where the government once removed Rwandans to Rwanda, they have not done so since 2015 before any of these laws were passed. Only a dozen have been removed forcibly in the last five years. 

This raises the clear problem that if the government has been unable to return any of their own citizens to Rwanda in nearly a decade, what hope is there that many tens of thousands will be sent within the year?

Serious questions must be asked about why the UK is accepting Rwandan refugees if their home country is meant to be safe for all.

Nobody doubts that lives are at risk in the Channel and this should stop. The answer cannot be a strategy without evidence that it will work, with an extortionate price tag, to a country where we accept refugees fearing persecution and where we stopped enforced removals years ago.

I am not marking exams, but this plan would not get a pass.


Thom Brooks, professor of law and government at Durham University 

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