14 April saw the United Kingdom’s government set out bold new plans to combat illegal immigration to the country in the form of a “world-first” Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP). Migrants who take exceptionally dangerous journeys and illegally enter the UK are to be directed to Rwanda to claim asylum there. The UK government has promised to support the building of new and prosperous lives in Rwanda and is investing £120 million into the development of the nation to accommodate these plans. Home Secretary Priti Patel who signed the partnership with Rwandan Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Vincent Biruta, stated that “the global migration crisis… requires new world-leading solutions” and that “change is needed because people are dying attempting to come to the UK illegally”.
The Migration and Economic Development Partnership, a “Memorandum of Understanding” between the UK and Rwanda, was agreed upon in April 2022. It allows the UK to send people to Rwanda who would otherwise claim asylum within the UK to the tune of a £120 million initial payment that should cover operational costs and further economic development within the country.
The policy has been met with much push back, notably from Siobhán Mullally, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons especially women and children, who stated that “transferring asylum seekers to third countries does nothing to prevent or combat human trafficking” and argued that “rather than reducing trafficking in persons, it is likely to increase risks of exploitation”.
To those who may argue that issues concerning human trafficking can be solved with information and questioning, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees states concern for the difficulties that arise from disclosing traumatic experiences, such as trafficking, in screening interview for asylum seekers. These interviews are conducted shortly after the asylum seekers’ arrival and there are long-standing concerns about the quality of information collected through such screening. In particular, there are many concerns regarding the identification of vulnerabilities; issues such as trafficking could be at risk of being missed throughout the screening process. This can be either because the interviewer is not collecting high enough quality information or because the interviewee is actively (or passively) avoiding engaging in dialogue about their experience or situation due to the trauma it has, and may continue to, cause.
Aside from further endangering the lives of people who have already fled environmental crises, poverty and conflict and placing them at risk of human trafficking, this policy also plays directly into the politics of exclusion. It strips asylum seekers of their right (by the International Refugee Convention) and the agency to have their case properly considered in a country of their choosing, thereby increasing their displacement two-fold. On UK soil, many are arguing that the policy was a politically calculated move; the language of the agreement seems to be very specifically aimed at the domestic audience as it utilises buzz-terms such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “taking back control” of immigration.
The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) released an important legal analysis of the partnership between the UK and Rwanda which also critiqued the agreement and essentially stated that the MoU between the UK and Rwanda does not meet the requirements to be considered a lawful and appropriate bilateral transfer arrangement. The UNHCR’s view is that the arrangement
“attempts to shift responsibility for identifying and meeting international protection needs from the UK to Rwanda, against the principle of burden sharing … therefore [it is] an example of externalisation of international protection and is, as such, unlawful”.
The partnership is, in its entirety, incompatible with both the letter and the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
While countries such as Austria and Denmark, most notably, have dabbled with the idea of high-income countries externalising migration management before, this UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership is the first in a broader policy push to this type of migration management. It is the first example of the shifting of this theoretical option to a tangible programme. The mere existence of such an agreement is acting as a precedent for parties to speak about the externalised policies which could, for example, reinvigorate Denmark’s interest in a similar plan. Essentially, this agreement can be viewed as the opening of the floodgates for other high-income countries to all begin externalising migration management and, in turn, perpetuate the cycle of insecurity, exploitation and human rights infringement.