Sunak faces backlash over Rwanda asylum plan as critics say money could be better spent

The UK government’s controversial policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda has sparked a fierce debate over its legality, morality and cost-effectiveness. Critics say the plan is a violation of human rights and international law, and that the millions of pounds spent on it could be better used to fix the UK’s asylum system and support refugees in need.

What is the Rwanda asylum plan?

The Rwanda asylum plan, officially known as the UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, was first proposed by the British government in April 2022. It is an immigration policy whereby people identified by the UK as being illegal immigrants or asylum seekers would be relocated to Rwanda for processing, asylum and resettlement. Those who were successful in claiming asylum would remain in Rwanda and they would not be permitted to return to the UK. In return, the UK would accept an unspecified number of the “most vulnerable refugees” currently residing in Rwanda. The stated aims of the plan were to decrease the number of migrant crossings in the English Channel, stop human smuggling, and boost Rwandan investment and development.

The plan was signed by British home secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan foreign minister Vincent Biruta on 13 April 2022, for a duration of five years. The UK agreed to pay Rwanda an “economic transformation and integration fund” amounting to £120 million, and to fund each immigrant in an amount of between £20,000 and £30,000 for their relocation and temporary accommodation under the scheme. The agreement did not specify how many migrants would be accepted under the scheme, but it was reported that the initial maximum would be 200.

What are the legal challenges to the plan?

The plan faced several legal challenges from human rights groups, lawyers and asylum seekers themselves, who argued that it was unlawful, inhumane and ineffective. They claimed that the plan violated the 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the UK’s Human Rights Act, which prohibit the refoulement of refugees to countries where they may face persecution, torture or ill-treatment. They also questioned the adequacy and reliability of Rwanda’s asylum system, which has been criticised for its lack of independence, transparency and fairness. They pointed out that Rwanda is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and that it has a poor human rights record, especially towards political opponents and ethnic minorities.

Sunak faces backlash over Rwanda asylum plan as critics say money could be better spent

The first flight for the plan, which was scheduled for 14 June 2022, was halted by an interim measure from the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered the UK to suspend the deportations until the conclusion of the legal action in the UK. At the end of 2022, the High Court ruled that although the plan was lawful in principle, the individual cases of eight asylum seekers due to be deported that year had to be reconsidered. The Court of Appeal upheld this ruling on 29 June 2023, and added that there was a real risk of asylum claims being wrongly determined in Rwanda, resulting in people being wrongly returned to their country of origin and facing persecution. The UK government appealed to the Supreme Court, which delivered its final verdict on 15 November 2023. The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that the plan was unlawful, and that the evidence cast doubt on Rwanda’s ability to fix the deficiencies in its asylum system and see through the changes required.

What are the political and public reactions to the plan?

The plan has been met with widespread opposition and criticism from various political parties, civil society organisations, media outlets and public figures. The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and the Plaid Cymru have all condemned the plan as cruel, immoral and ineffective. They have called for the government to scrap the plan and to invest in a fair and humane asylum system that respects the rights and dignity of refugees. They have also accused the government of using the plan as a distraction from its own failures in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, the Brexit negotiations and the climate crisis.

Many human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Refugee Action and Freedom from Torture, have also denounced the plan as a breach of international law and a betrayal of the UK’s long-standing tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution and violence. They have urged the government to reconsider the plan and to work with other countries and international organisations to find sustainable and humane solutions to the global refugee situation. They have also highlighted the plight and suffering of the asylum seekers affected by the plan, who have faced uncertainty, anxiety and trauma as a result of the threat of deportation.

Some media outlets, such as The Guardian, The Independent, The Mirror and The Scotsman, have also criticised the plan as a shameful and costly scheme that undermines the UK’s reputation and values. They have questioned the logic and morality of sending asylum seekers to a country that is far from their original destination, that has a history of genocide and human rights abuses, and that is not equipped or willing to offer them protection and integration. They have also challenged the government’s claims that the plan would deter irregular migration and save lives, and argued that the plan would only encourage more dangerous and desperate journeys, and fuel the business of smugglers and traffickers.

Some public figures, such as celebrities, academics, religious leaders and former politicians, have also expressed their opposition and dismay at the plan. They have signed petitions, written open letters, joined protests and launched campaigns to call on the government to abandon the plan and to show compassion and solidarity with refugees. They have also appealed to the public to support the cause of refugees and to welcome them in their communities.

How much does the plan cost and is it worth it?

The plan has also raised concerns over its financial implications and its value for money. According to the Home Office’s own estimates, the plan could cost £169,000 for every asylum seeker forcibly removed to Rwanda, which is £63,000 more than keeping them in the UK. The UK’s asylum system costs £3 billion a year, and the government has argued that the plan would reduce this expenditure and save taxpayers’ money. However, critics have challenged this assertion and pointed out that the plan would only affect a small fraction of the asylum seekers in the UK, and that the savings would be negligible compared to the costs. They have also suggested that the money spent on the plan could be better used to improve the UK’s asylum system and to support refugees in need, both in the UK and abroad.

For example, the Refugee Council, a leading charity that works with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, has calculated that the £120 million fund that the UK has agreed to pay Rwanda could instead be used to provide:

  • Legal advice and representation for 120,000 asylum seekers in the UK
  • Safe and suitable accommodation for 40,000 asylum seekers in the UK
  • Mental health support for 80,000 asylum seekers in the UK
  • Education and employment opportunities for 60,000 refugees in the UK
  • Humanitarian assistance for 1.2 million refugees in Rwanda

The charity has also argued that the plan would not only be a waste of money, but also a waste of lives, as it would put asylum seekers at risk of harm and deprive them of their rights and dignity.

By Ishan Crawford

Prior to the position, Ishan was senior vice president, strategy & development for Cumbernauld-media Company since April 2013. He joined the Company in 2004 and has served in several corporate developments, business development and strategic planning roles for three chief executives. During that time, he helped transform the Company from a traditional U.S. media conglomerate into a global digital subscription service, unified by the journalism and brand of Cumbernauld-media.

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