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What Boris Johnson’s Deal With Rwanda Means for U.K. Asylum System

LONDON — The British government has announced a plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, a move that prompted an immediate backlash from opposition politicians, international legal experts and human rights defenders.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that the move was intended to tackle people-smuggling and to “fix our broken asylum system,” many called the plan cruel and potentially illegal.

The announcement comes at a politically fraught time for Mr. Johnson, who faces criticism for breaches of coronavirus lockdown measures, and as the number of people crossing the English Channel by boat to claim asylum continues to rise.

Here’s what to know about the current situation, as well as what experts say is likely to come next.

The highly visible boat arrivals across the English Channel have increased measurably over the past two years. At least 2,354 people arrived in Britain on small boats last month, according to the BBC, almost three times as many as in the same month in 2021.

But the number of overall asylum applications is still significantly lower than its peak two decades ago, with the total in 2021 just over half of what it was in 2002. And of all those applying for asylum, almost two-thirds were found to be genuine refugees in 2021.

Experts have long said that the boat arrivals signal a change in route, as those hoping to enter Britain to claim asylum have shifted from other, less visible means of entry, such as smuggling by truck or arriving by plane, especially as some means of international travel were halted by the pandemic.

Most of those who arrive by boat have valid asylum claims, research has concluded, and are coming from war-torn countries including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Rights groups argue that the issue of boat arrivals has been used to harness discontent and to rally support for the government. “There is completely disproportionate hysteria around this,” said Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a British charity.

Rights groups also worry about how dangerous the boat crossings are. In one particularly deadly incident, at least 27 people died when their dinghy sank while making the crossing last year.

But those groups say that the best way to combat the problem is to overhaul the system and provide humanitarian visas, giving people a way to travel safely to Britain to have their asylum claims heard.

It can be done, said Andy Hewett, head of advocacy for the Refugee Council, an organization that works with refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. He cited the example of the visas the British government has allowed for Ukrainian refugees.

“There is no difference between the risks facing Ukrainian refugees and the risks facing refugees from other conflict zones across the world,” Mr. Hewett said.

The new plan is contingent on the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill, now being considered by Parliament. The legislation would overhaul Britain’s immigration process and could criminalize the act of entering the country without a valid visa or through what the government calls “irregular routes.” 

When Britain first began to unfurl the bill last year, the United Nations refugee agency said that many of the proposals could undermine the country’s commitment to the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees. The convention lays out that people have a right to claim asylum in any country and that the country where they do so should examine their claim.

On Thursday, just hours after the announcement, the U.N. agency denounced the move, saying that Britain’s arrangements would “abdicate responsibility to others and thus threaten the international refugee protection regime.”

Mr. Hewett of the Refugee Council pointed to Australia’s widely criticized offshore detention program for asylum seekers, in which people who try to enter the country by boat are transported to remote Pacific islands, as an example of what could go wrong for Britain.

The Australian measures proved to be incredibly damaging to the mental health of those in the system, as well as costly to the government.

“There’s a real human cost, but also, it’s going to be hugely expensive financially,” he said. “And, most importantly, it will be completely ineffective.”

Research into an Israeli program that transported thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda from 2013 to 2017 found that they were not given ample protection there, and then relied on smugglers to take them to Europe.

So rather than ending dangerous people-smuggling, Ms. Gardner of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said, the new policies could actually make it worse and “fuel a new wave of smuggling gangs to get people back out of Rwanda.”

While it may take time for the full details of Britain’s plan to be released, it is likely to face many legal challenges.

The proposal at the very least undermines the spirit of the international agreement on refugees, Mr. Hewett said, and sets a “dangerous precedent” for other Western countries looking to outsource to countries like Rwanda.

“The end result will be that most of the refugee population gets hosted in developing countries,” he said.

“The numbers of people claiming asylum in the U.K. should be completely manageable for any government,” Mr. Hewett said. “I think what this government has chosen to do has been really to under-resource the asylum system.”

The asylum backlog has increased substantially in recent years, according to analysis from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. And under consecutive governments, the provisions for those who claim asylum have dwindled, with the focus instead on deterrence, amid cuts to housing and financial support.

Asylum seekers make up a small percentage of the overall number of migrants to Britain, and compared to other countries in Europe, Britain takes in a much smaller proportion. In 2020, there were around six asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in Britain, while the average across the European Union was 11 asylum applications for every 10,000 people.

But there are huge backlogs in the system, and asylum seekers are often left lingering in hotels or military barracks while they await decisions.

Political experts, rights groups and opposition lawmakers agree that the plan would face a variety of legal hurdles before anyone could be transported to Rwanda. Previous efforts to discuss moving asylum seekers to Albania or Ghana to have their applications considered came to nothing.

And details of whom the new measures would apply to remain scarce. Ms. Gardner said that the program had been announced with “a lot of rhetoric and not very much detail,” a sentiment echoed by many asylum experts and politicians.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is making its way through Parliament, where it has faced a number of defeats in the House of Lords. The Rwanda plan could be contingent on the passage of that law, which would extend the provisions for offshore processing of asylum claims.

Mr. Johnson acknowledged himself on Thursday that there were obstacles to overcome, conceding that the plan “will not take effect overnight.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting.

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