The UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement sets a concerning precedent and degrades an already stressed refugee system.

In 1951, the United Kingdom signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; almost 68 years later to the date, it abrogated the human rights obligations enshrined in that same document. The Convention protects the world’s most vulnerable populations through the principles of non-refoulement, non-penalization, and non-discrimination  – to name a few –  and beseeches its signatories to uphold these tenets through their own national policies.

The recently proposed UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement abandons these principles and relocates asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda, a country over 4000 miles away and with a questionable human rights record. The implications of this arrangement, like the deal itself, are far-reaching, but ultimately signal that asylum responsibilities, as set out in the Convention, are a fungible task. While it is uncertain whether the deal can overcome the numerous legal challenges it creates, it is clear that as one of the first signatories to the Convention, the United Kingdom is still influencing the international protection system, albeit in the wrong direction.

The UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement

Frustrated with the European Union’s inability to control refugee arrivals, demonstrated by the 28,526 asylum seekers who reached the United Kingdom in 2021 alone, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck a deal with Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The agreement aims to address these irregular entries by relocating asylum seekers to the East African nation.

As stipulated, the United Kingdom would screen asylum seekers upon their arrival, and then provide Rwanda with their personal information. Rwanda would then have to adjudicate the asylum claim before each transfer. Once approved, and in Kigali, each asylum seeker would be given accommodation, funded by the United Kingdom’s 120-million-euro payment (~157 million USD), and be offered long-term housing. The Rwandan government reported that migrants approved under the agreement would also be “entitled to full protection under Rwandan law, equal access to employment, and enrollment in healthcare and social services.” If their asylum claims are denied, however, they would be removed to a third country.

The UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement’s main goals are to deter irregular entry facilitated by “criminal gangs,” to protect safe and legal routes for those fleeing persecution, and to eliminate costs to British taxpayers. Before these objectives can be met and the deal realized, the agreement faces many legal challenges.

Challenges and Criticisms of the Deal

Non-refoulement, Non-penalization, and Non-discrimination

First, the agreement is incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the 1951 Convention. In fact, former Prime Minister Teresa May told the House of Commons that she did not support the policy, concerned that it might be at odds with international legal standards. The standards May references are non-refoulement, non-penalization, and non-discrimination.

Non-refoulement, or Article 33(1) of the Convention, guarantees that asylum seekers will not be returned to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened: this applies to Rwanda. Yet, governments, including the United Kingdom, often skirt this principle by designating a nation as a “safe-third country” in order to circumvent their responsibility and comply with the Convention on the surface. Johnson’s January 2021 statements stating that Kigali “restricts civil and political rights and media freedom,” and his subsequent reversal, hailing Rwanda as “one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognized for its record of welcoming and integrating migrants,” highlights this contradiction.

The agreement only applies to individuals “whose claims are not being considered by the United Kingdom,” and who are deemed inadmissible because of their entry method. This violates Article 31(1) of the Convention, which exempts refugees from penalization for irregular arrival. Notable penalties administered by other nations have included indefinite detainment, family separation, and criminal prosecution. In the United Kingdom’s instance, treating the asylum claims of those who enter the territory irregularly as inadmissible and therefore transferrable to Rwanda constitutes a penalty. While there is no formal punishment for violating Article 31, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees admonished European governments’ unlawful policies towards asylum seekers.

Lastly, the Convention is underpinned by the central principle of non-discrimination as outlined in Article 3, meaning that policies are to be applied without discrimination based on race, religion, or country of origin. Most of the arrivals to Britain are single-men from Iran: the UK-Rwandan deal blocks their entry into the United Kingdom because men from areas affected by conflict, and detached from a family unit are often seen, by virtue of their gender and nationality, as security threats.

Reliance on double voluntarism

Another obstacle facing the UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement is its reliance on double voluntarism: in order for the deal to be successful, both parties, the United Kingdom and Rwanda, would have to implement their side of the non-binding contract. While the United Kingdom says it will provide the one-time sum, there is no guarantee Kagame will adhere to the terms of the agreement, especially considering the evolving nature of the deal, Rwanda’s legacy as a refugee producing nation, and current domestic pressures.

Human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department have issued reports concerning the assassination of government critics by Rwandan agents. Lewis Mudge, Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, also says, regarding the treatment of asylum seekers, that “arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in facilities is commonplace.” This is in addition to domestic pressures, namely whether Rwanda has the physical capacity to accommodate tens of thousands of refugees. Rwanda is the most densely populated African country, and political figures like Frank Habineza, President of the Rwandan Green Democratic Party, says the deal is unsustainable given the population’s competition over land resources. The country already hosts 127,112 refugees, many of whom are from Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Inefficiency of deterrence methods

The UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement largely relies on Rwanda’s location as a distant, remote country to impede the arrival of asylum seekers; a tactic known as “prevention through deterrence.” Rwanda’s landlocked nature, combined with Britain’s perception of migrants as security threats and as a burden to UK taxpayers, allows the United Kingdom to justify zero tolerance measures to exclude them. One of these measures includes the British Royal Navy assuming operational command from the EU’s Border Force in the English Channel “with the aim that no boat makes it to the UK undetected.”

Another strategy employed by the UK is to blame smugglers for endangering migrants, which shifts culpability away from Britain’s punitive policies. However, the growth of smugglers, the use of irregular routes, and the deaths of migrants in the Channel are the direct result of enhanced border-enforcement strategies and lack of legal avenues. Not only are these deterrence strategies expensive, they are also ineffective.

A survey of asylum seekers in Northern France found that three-quarters will try to reach the United Kingdom despite the government’s plans. Many of those interviewed were from Sudan and South Sudan and were horrified at the prospect of being transferred to Rwanda, a country not far from the places they fled, and the potential of having to endure crossing the Mediterranean again.

The possibility of transfer and being barred from entering Britain does not discourage asylum seekers from taking more dangerous routes to get there; instead, it turns them towards the smuggling networks that the deal hopes to deter. While Johnson and UK Home Office Secretary Priti Patel tout the UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement as breaking smugglers’ networks, the deal itself transports migrants thousands of miles away, which simply adds to the demand for different routes and modes of transport back out of Rwanda. A clear example is the 2014 Israel-Rwandan deal where asylum seekers sent by Tel Aviv fled Kigali to neighboring countries or returned to Israel, nullifying the agreement and sowing tension between the two nations.

European-African Migration Diplomacy: Control or Cooperation?

The UK-Rwandan plan is not an aberration when viewed within the tumultuous context of Europe’s immigration policy. Like other countries across Europe, the United Kingdom found itself grappling with the 2015 influx of asylum seekers in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war and its negative sentiments surrounding hosting these refugees contributed to its decision to leave the European Union. Though now separate from the EU, the United Kingdom still contributes to the idea of Fortress Europe, described as Europe’s restrictive approach towards migration management as well as its exclusionary policies to deny asylum seekers their rights.

Part of this approach is externalizing their asylum responsibilities to African countries and former colonies as they try to distance themselves from events that drive displacement as seen in the 2007, 2011, and 2017 Italy-Libya deal, as well as the 2014 EU-Cape Verde, 2014 EU-Tunisia, 2016 EU-Nigeria, and 2018 Spain-Morocco arrangements. The UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement, which Patel labels as a “freedom Brexit affords,” continues to play into Britain and Europe’s xenophobic impulses. It is even more disconcerting considering the enthusiasm shown towards Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian aggression, which exemplifies that protection is conditional on having a European nationality or ethnicity.

Implications Outside of Britain

Regardless of whether the UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement is implemented, the repercussions of its introduction will be long lasting as it increases tension with the European Union, threatens the international protection system, and strains European-African relations.

The European Union has made clear that it is willing to externalize its migration policy to keep refugees and asylum seekers from reaching its borders. This has provided state and non-state actors with the incentive to use migrants as pawns, such as Belarus’s manipulation of third country nationals in 2021. The UK-Rwandan deal increases the possibility of weaponizing migrants by providing non-coastal or non-EU-bordering countries, like Rwanda, with the coercive capital to pressure the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe.

The deal, which Patel details as “a global first that will change the way we collectively tackle illegal migration,” also threatens the international protection system by signaling to other nations that these types of arrangements are feasible, and that processing asylum claims is a fungible task. Denmark indicated that it is looking to make a similar deal with Rwanda, further undermining territorial asylum. This prompted United Nations High Commission for Refugees Assistant Secretary General, Gillian Riggs, to “strongly condemns outsourcing the primary responsibility to consider refugees status.”

Generally, African countries within the African Union (AU) have been united in rejecting Europe’s border externalization measures as restrictions on free movements are against the bloc’s priorities. Rwanda’s break of this tradition stresses African and European countries, leading the AU to describe a potential Denmark-Rwandan deal as xenophobic and an example of neocolonialism through the expansion of European borders.

Moving Towards Protection

85 percent of refugees are being hosted by developing countries. The UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement demonstrates that the “global refugee crisis” is not as “global” as one might think. Instead of transferring asylum seekers and its responsibilities to Rwanda, there are measures that the United Kingdom can take to purposefully move toward equity in the asylum process.

The United Kingdom and other European countries should work with African partners to prevent, mitigate, and resolve drivers of displacement. This can include supporting local democratic institutions, accountability mechanisms, and economic development. Western powers can also recognize that migrants traveling to Europe are a  byproduct of global inequity, wherein the developing world bears the brunt of economic and environmental instability exacerbated by Western practices.      

Further, the United Kingdom can directly address people smuggling, rather than implement a controversial deal in the hopes that it will itself reduce the phenomenon. This should take the form of significant inter-country cooperation with nations like France, creating education campaigns to inform those who might use the services of a smuggler of the dangers associated with doing so, or increasing the number of legal pathways to enter the country. Ultimately, smugglers have the advantage because they are best able to exploit the discrepancies in the United Kingdom’s migration policy.

Though the UK-Rwandan Asylum Agreement is likely to be ineffective in its goal to deter irregular entry, it is successful in degrading an already stressed refugee system.

Kyilah Terry is a Policy Fellow in the Office of the Vice President and a Research Analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Africa Center. She earned a master’s degree in International Relations/European Affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) focusing on refugee law, climate displacement, and EU migration policy. She is also a 2022-23 Princeton in Africa Fellow