The UK–Rwanda Refugee Deal: Modelling Fortress Australia

Over the last few years there has been a flurry of activity from former Australian politicians who have found advisory roles in the United Kingdom. Tony Abbott, not without some controversy, was made trade advisor for ‘Global Britain’, though he also offered his views on how best to shore up British border security against unregulated Channel migration. 

Alexander Downer, Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, was also tapped, in 2001, for his role in developing a deterrent policy against irregular sea-borne arrivals.  Writing for the Daily Mail last September, he openly praised UK Home Affairs Minister Priti Patel’s efforts in dealing with irregular Channel migration. Despite her approach being ‘widely ridiculed on both sides of the Channel…I know that a ‘push-back’ policy can work’, he said.  He advised the minister ‘to introduce a ‘push-back’ policy without fanfare, and to keep the French informed on a need-to-know basis only’.

The praise, and advice, has not gone unnoticed. A statement from the UK Home Office noted Patel’s commissioning of ‘a wide-ranging, independent review of our Border Force to assess its structure, powers, funding and priorities to ensure it can keep pace with rapidly evolving threats and continue to protect the border, maintain security and prevent illegal migration’. The person responsible for leading it? Downer himself.

Patel has found elements of the ‘Australian model’ in approaching asylum seekers arriving by boat compelling, including refugee relocation to offshore facilities in other countries, in the Australian case to countries, such as Nauru and PNG. Particularly appealing is the proviso that those found to be refugees are settled in those countries with a promise of aid and assistance. 

The basis for such a scheme lies in fears that cross-Channel migration has become unsustainable. The number of migrants attempting to make the crossing from France in 2021 was estimated to be 28,431.  In 2020, it was a markedly smaller 8417. The Home Office has floated the possibility that the number could even balloon to 65,000. 

The United Kingdom is not alone in finding the brutal Australian precedent appealing. In June last year the Danish parliament passed legislation permitting the transfer of asylum seekers to third countries for processing. A visit to Rwanda by Immigration Minister Matthias Tesfaye, and the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Copenhagen and Kigali, followed. In a statement to the BBC, Tesfaye confirmed that both countries were ‘in dialogue’ although there was at that time no formal ‘agreement on transfer of asylum seekers’. Israel, concerned about increasing numbers of asylum seekers, hailing mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, has reached agreements too with third countries, to establish what it calls ‘safe havens’. While not officially known, these countries are said to be Uganda and Rwanda.

The common thread in all these agreements is Africa in general and Rwanda in particular.  On 14 April the British government announced that it had reached an Asylum Partnership Arrangement with Rwanda ‘to contribute to the prevention and combating of illegally facilitated and unlawful cross border migration by establishing a bilateral asylum partnership’. Rwanda will receive asylum seekers whose claims would otherwise be processed in the United Kingdom, consider them through the ‘Rwanda domestic asylum system’ and have the responsibility for settling and protecting applicants.

Somewhat misleadingly, given its distinct Australian imprint, the UK Home Office called this a ‘world first partnership’ to combat the ‘global migration crisis’. The partnership sought to ‘address’ the ‘shared international challenge of illegal migration and break the business model of smuggling gangs’. Not one reference is made to the immutable right to seek asylum, assured under the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, which exists irrespective of the mode of travel or arrival. 

The UK–Rwanda agreement comes with a host of problems, as remarked upon by a number of human rights organisations. For one, it ignores the high proportion of individuals who have in the past been granted asylum and permitted to remain in the United Kingdom, suggesting that not all are undeserving ‘economic migrants’.   

The UK Refugee Council, in an analysis of Channel crossings and asylum outcomes between January 2020 and June 2021, noted that 91 per cent of those making the journey came from ten countries where grave, extensive human rights abuses are acknowledged.  Emilie McDonnell of Human Rights Watch UK, having scoured Home Office data and information gathered via freedom of information laws, argues that 61 per cent of migrants who travel by boat are likely to remain in the United Kingdom after claiming asylum. 

A more serious point for refugee advocates and students of international law is the sending of asylum seekers to third countries that have patchy human rights records.  Australia’s own Gillard government found that its brokered ‘Malaysia Solution’, which would have involved the transfer of 800 asylum seekers in exchange for 4000 certified refugees, ran foul of the Migration Act

In its 2011 decision, the Australian High Court, in granting injunctions preventing the transfer, noted that Malaysia was not a signatory to the UN Human Rights Convention and a range of other instruments. As it did not seem legally bound to provide access for asylum seekers to effective procedures, or to provide protection, the immigration minister’s  intended policy was deemed invalid.

Rwanda presents an even more formidable problem as a third-country recipient of asylum seekers. Despite being roundly praised by the UK government as a paragon of development and progress in Africa, Kigali’s record on this score is strikingly unimpressive. According to Human Rights Watch, the country is known for its use of torture, prosecuting dissidents, extrajudicial killings, and unlawful and arbitrary detention. 

In February 2018, twelve refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo were killed when Rwandan police fired live ammunition into a gathering protesting a cut in food rations. Over sixty people were subsequently arrested and prosecuted on charges ranging from rebellion to the ‘spreading of false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state’. 

As has been starkly demonstrated by Australia’s own offshoring record, outsourcing a state’s obligations to process asylum claims is not merely costly to the taxpayer, it can place individuals in need of protection in harm’s way, going against both the spirit, and the letter, of international refugee law. Unfortunately for those who still believe in the merits of international human rights laws, the Australian model, revised for European application, is bound to become ever more popular for populists and reactionaries. 

Boris Johnson’s government grants funding for a fleet of specialist drones to monitor the Channel.

About the author

Binoy Kampmark

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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