On the morning of April 14th, Boris Johnson announced that people seeking asylum in the UK will be sent to Rwanda – some 4,500 miles from the UK – before being able to claim asylum and will have to remain in the country while they wait for their application to be approved or rejected. If their asylum claim is approved, they will be entitled to remain in Rwanda. Returning to the UK will not be an option.

This scheme is part of a new Migration and Economic Development Partnership between the UK and Rwanda, which outlines the financial, legal, and practical arms of this pathway. Within hours of releasing details of the plan, the government faced significant national and international criticism. The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, expressed deep concern over the plans:

“UNHCR does not support the externalisation of asylum states’ obligations. This includes measures taken by states to transfer asylum seekers and refugees to other countries, with insufficient safeguards to protect their rights, or where this leads to the shifting rather than the sharing of responsibilities to protect refugees” a spokesperson commented.

These proposals are not unexpected; they follow previous failures to cement deals with Albania and Ghana. Moreover, they are part of a wider policy landscape where ‘externalisation’ (offshoring) is increasingly toyed-with as a viable option for global migration management. Famously, externalisation was implemented (and abandoned) by Australia as part of their controversial and violent ‘Pacific Solution’.

This proposal is one of the first policies we will see implemented as part of the government’s New Plan for Immigration, the bounds of which are defined by the Nationality and Borders Bill (NBB).

So, what does this plan tell us about the Nationality and Borders Bill, and why we should we be so worried about it becoming law?

There are three key unjust aspects of the Nationality and Borders Bill which are reflected in this scheme: the (il)legality of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the linking of asylum to criminality under the New Plan for Immigration, and the subsequent denial of human rights to asylum seekers arriving in the UK.

How legal is this plan, really?

This plan toes the line between legal and illegal.

Colin Yeo, an immigration and asylum barrister, has made it clear that under current legislation, the Rwandan plans are simply unlawful. However, if the Nationality and Borders Bill were to become an Act of Parliament, these plans would enter a greyer zone.

While the 1951 Refugee Convention does not make the removal of asylum seekers illegal in principle, various articles of the Convention (including Article 31, 32 and 33), as well as European Human Rights law (which the UK is party to), could come into play if the removal of an asylum seekers is deemed to constitute a human rights violation.

Just like the Nationality and Borders Bill, which has been criticised by the UNHCR for contravening the international expectations of the Refugee Convention, the Rwandan plan plays in the limits and gaps of international refugee law.

Yet, seeking asylum is never illegal

Crucial to the Nationality and Borders Bill is the idea that asylum seekers arriving in the UK via ‘irregular’ routes (such as small boat arrivals) are in some way committing a less legal or less legitimate act than those arriving via regular routes (and are to be punished for it). This fundamentally misunderstands the concept of asylum: claiming asylum, no matter how you arrive in the country you wish to claim asylum in, is never illegal. The plan to relocate any asylum seekers (except unaccompanied children) to Rwanda is an example of this flawed logic.

In his justification of this plan, Johnson argues that the returns scheme is designed to reduce the numbers of “economic migrants taking advantage of the asylum system”.  Again, this suggests that some people claiming asylum are doing so illegitimately – even ‘illegally’.

But this claim simply does not hold up. The vast majority of people  claiming asylum in the UK via unsafe routes eventually have their applications approved: between 2020-2021, 82% of applicants were granted refugee status (and of those initially rejected, almost half were granted status on appeal). The idea that this scheme will  reduce the smuggling of economic migrants and thus ensure the ‘safety’ of asylum seekers is a dangerous red herring.

Asylum seekers will be denied their human rights

This final injustice of this plan and the Nationality and Borders Bill arises because of the first two: by toeing the line of (il)legality and by criminalising the principle of asylum, the human rights of individuals claiming asylum in the UK are fundamentally eroded.

The rhetoric of the Rwanda scheme is cruel and dehumanising. It speaks about individual asylum seekers – who have likely already undertaken long journeys to get to the UK – as if they were simply cargo with no human agency. There is serious and troubling lack of recognition of just how traumatic that journey and the process of removal can be. There is also no recognition that many asylum seekers will not want to or necessarily be able to live in Rwanda.

This is particularly true if we consider the wider human rights context. Contrary to Boris Johnson’s statement that “Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world”, Rwanda has a poor human rights record and is a source of many refugees who fear political persecution by the Kagame regime. Indeed, the likelihood that offshored asylum seekers will face human rights abuses is high; Israel sent Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Rwanda under a policy that was eventually abandoned. A study by Oxford university academics outlined personal experiences of these asylum seekers who speak of ongoing threatening and degrading behaviours and the confiscation of key identity documents upon arrival.

How can we be claiming to protect asylum seekers by knowingly sending them to live under the same regime?

The Nationality and Borders Bill will return to the Commons on Wednesday 20th after being defeated for a second time by the Lords. There are more just and dignified ways of running our asylum and refugee systems in the UK, and there is the popular will to support them.

There is no illegal way to claim asylum and now is the time to stand in solidarity with all asylum seekers seeking refuge in the UK, regardless of their means of arrival.

By Tiger Hills, Advocacy Volunteer