Jubilee+ Response to the Prime Minister's Statement on Offshoring
Jubilee+ statement: the Prime Minister’s briefing on Asylum
The Prime Minister announced today that a deal has been struck with Rwanda to deport asylum seekers who come to the UK by ‘illegal routes’, such as crossing the channel in small boats, to detention centres in the African country. He said that it would be a deterrent to those crossing the channel, and would break the people smuggling gangs who profit from the trade. It is part of the government policy to take back our borders and stop ‘illegal routes’, while encouraging people to come to the UK through safe and legal routes.
There is a great deal to unpick in the statement, but these are the major flaws with the deal:
1. The Prime Minister frequently mentioned ‘safe and legal routes’, but there are actually no safe and legal routes to the UK for the vast majority of those fleeing war and persecution. The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme has ended, the schemes for Afghans fleeing the Taliban are only available to those who stay in Afghanistan and wait to be rescued, and even the Homes for Ukraine scheme relies on matching guests and hosts, and is being run ‘outside of the immigration rules’.
If Syrians, Afghans or even Ukrainians cross the channel in a small boat and claim asylum here, they would, under the new scheme, be deported to Rwanda and put in a detention camp until their claim had been processed. It also appears, from the Prime Minister’s statement, that the claim would be for asylum in Rwanda, not the UK. This would be a clear contravention of the UK’s commitment to the UN Convention on Refugees, which gives those fleeing persecution the right to claim asylum in any country that has signed up to the convention. The UNHCR has already stated that the bill would break international law.
2. The Prime Minister said that he hoped the partnership with Rwanda would be a model for others to follow. Offshoring asylum seekers has been a policy in Australia since 2012, where it has been fiercely criticised as inhumane and absurdly expensive. There is now just one detention centre left, on the island of Nauru in the Pacific, with barely 100 ‘inmates’ remaining. The cost of keeping each asylum seeker there is estimated at £6,715 per person, per day – that’s £2.45 million per year! It is difficult to see how this fits with the Home Secretary’s explicit intention of cutting costs in the asylum system.
Quite apart from the costs of the scheme, the impact on the health of those in the camps – especially mental health – cannot be overestimated. In 2016 a report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the ‘inmates’ suffered “severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect”.
There is no reason to think that the detention centres in Rwanda would be any more humane. In 2020 the US State Department noted: “harsh and life-threatening conditions in some detention facilities” in Rwanda.
3. Many NGOs working with asylum seekers and victims of trafficking have said that there is no evidence that the scheme would stop people smuggling, or people trying to enter the UK through irregular routes. Indeed, it may simply have the effect that those who do enter the UK are deterred from claiming asylum, and are forced into the black economy, where they run the risk of exploitation.
The Prime Minister stated that those who steer the boats across the channel would be liable to ‘life imprisonment’. People smugglers never enter the boats, let alone steer them. It is unbelievably harsh to sentence someone to life imprisonment who has simply taken the initiative to pilot the vessel, and may well have a genuine claim to asylum. Many murderers are not given life sentences.
He also said that 70% of those crossing the channel are ‘young men’, as if that was in itself a crime. There is a very simple reason for that. Many women cannot escape their country easily, because, in many cultures, they cannot travel alone, and if they do, they risk sexual exploitation. They also often have children, which hinders their ability to escape and travel easily. Young men are more likely to have the physical capacity to travel long distances and navigate difficult terrain.
4. Finally, the Prime Minister talked about the UK’s ‘world leading’ resettlement schemes. It is true that the UK has taken more refugees than other European nations through resettlement schemes, but that simply masks the fact that we are actually well behind other nations when it comes to taking in refugees. In 2019 the UK was 5th in Europe in terms of the number of first time asylum applications, and even adding in resettlement numbers makes little difference. Germany had the highest figure. Some countries, such as Sweden, had proportionally more applications.
The simple reason for this is that the UK is located far from the regions of conflict in Africa and the Middle East, which produce most refugees, and is also an island. To get to the UK, those who flee have to travel through many other countries, unless they come by air. The Prime Minister stated that refugees should claim asylum in the ‘first safe country’. If they did that, then clearly the UK would have no asylum seekers at all, while poorer nations like Greece and Italy would be liable to accept the vast majority. That is unjust, and removes our nation from playing its part in a compassionate response to a global issue.
Jubilee+ adds its voice to the call on the UK government to abandon plans for offshoring in Rwanda, treat those seeking asylum in the UK in accordance with our obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees, and open up many more safe routes, so that genuine refugees do not have to use irregular means to enter the UK.