Boris Johnson’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda ‘contravenes Geneva Convention’

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A UK plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has been decried by NGOs as well as the UN refugee agency, which has criticised the plan to relocate migrants as “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention”. FRANCE 24 spoke to Sciences Po university’s François Gemenne, an expert in migration.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday announced that some of the migrants and asylum seekers illegally entering Britain would be sent to Rwanda, with “tens of thousands” of people potentially making that journey in the coming years.

“From today … anyone entering the UK illegally as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 may now be relocated to Rwanda,” Johnson said in a speech near the southeastern city of Dover.

The move prompted swift backlash from opposition politicians, human rights groups, NGOs and the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. 

Sciences Po university’s François Gemenne, a researcher in the area of migration, says the agreement violates the Geneva Convention.  

FRANCE 24: What do we know about the UK-Rwanda deal on relocating asylum seekers?

François Gemenne: According to the agreement, all people crossing the border illegally into the UK – around 28,000 per year – will be sent to Rwanda, where their asylum applications will be processed from A to Z by Rwandan authorities. In return, the UK will pay Rwanda a substantial sum of £120 million (about €144 million) per year.

This is completely new. We often take the example of Australia outsourcing its asylum process to neighbouring island states such as Nauru, but the UK agreement goes much further. In Nauru, Australian officers process the asylum cases and the refugees are then entitled to travel to Australia. Under the UK-Rwanda agreement, asylum is entirely outsourced. If asylum is granted, refugees will not be able to go to the UK and will have to settle in Rwanda.

However, it is not clear how this will be implemented. We do not know how asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda or how they will be treated after their arrival. Will they be placed in detention centres? Will there be an appeals procedure? Will they have access to interpreters? Rwanda is not a model of human rights.

Many NGOs have denounced the illegal and cruel nature of the agreement. Does it contravene international law?

The agreement contravenes asylum law and the Geneva Convention, to which the UK is a signatory. Concerning people who cross the border illegally, the Geneva Convention makes it clear that people who cross a border to seek asylum should not be sanctioned for breaking the law, even if they use smugglers.

When you are fleeing a life-threatening situation in your own country, it is not always possible to apply for a visa. You have to be able to travel quickly to another country to apply for asylum, no matter how. Imagine – this would mean that Ukrainians currently fleeing war could end up in Rwanda.

The UK has, de facto, decided to stop granting asylum, since only those who have entered the country legally – which is a tiny minority – will be able to claim asylum and live there as refugees. This means that the UK is essentially leaving the Geneva Convention.

Is it realistic to expect the agreement will reduce the number of asylum applications?  

The agreement is going to be difficult to implement, and the cost to the British people will be considerable. In addition to the £120 million-per-year lump sum, the UK will have to transfer the asylum seekers to Rwanda. Considering that a forced eviction costs, on average, €14,000 per person in France, you can imagine how much the UK plan will cost.

The agreement, is however, likely to have a deterrent effect on asylum seekers, although this depends on how it is implemented. For example, will the boats be systematically checked, or only some of them?

Boris Johnson, nevertheless, seems to be committed to a “whatever it takes” approach to the issue, which has strong political implications for him. As he struggles to hold on to his premiership following the scandals related to parties held during lockdown, the deal allows him to show voters that the government will stop at nothing to protect the UK’s borders – which was one of the shock arguments of Brexit.

The fact that the £120 million is a package deal may also push the UK government to make it worthwhile by deporting as many asylum seekers as possible.

If this works, it is feared that other countries may be tempted to follow suit. Denmark has been discussing a similar deal with Rwanda in recent months, and the UK’s success on this front could prompt it to resume those negotiations. Hungary may also be interested in such a policy.

If the UK-Rwanda agreement does come into effect we can also expect consequences for France, since asylum seekers who refuse to cross the Channel into the UK will file applications here instead.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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