Boris Johnson has announced plans to transport to Rwanda “tens of thousands” of migrants seeking asylum in the UK, in an attempt to deter clandestine boat crossings across the English Channel.
In a speech in Kent on Thursday, the UK prime minister said anyone who has entered Britain through irregular means since January 1 and not sought asylum in a safe third country “may” be transported to the African nation and assessed there for eventual resettlement in Rwanda, under a deal struck with its government.
Johnson, who promised to tackle immigration levels when he co-led the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, said the British people had voted to “control” rather than close the borders.
“We must first ensure . . . that those who tried to jump the queue or abuse our system will find no automatic path to settlement in our country but rather be swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin,” he said.
Johnson described Rwanda as one of the safest countries in the world and said the plan was an “innovative approach, driven by our shared humanitarian impulse”.
But charities condemned the announcement, which Sam Nadel, of Oxfam, said was “not only cruel and immoral but also impractical”.
Johnson’s government has been struggling to prevent people arriving in the UK via small boats, with 28,526 estimated to have done so in 2021, a record for peace time. In November, 27 would-be refugees drowned when their boat foundered off the coast of France.
A snap opinion poll from YouGov found support for the policy from Conservative voters, who backed it by 59 to 22 per cent. Across the general public, however, backing was more muted, with 35 per cent in favour, 42 per cent opposed and 23 per cent unsure.
Since the end of the Brexit transition period, the government deems that those coming into Britain from a safe “third state” — such as France — can have their asylum claims declared “inadmissible” with no right of appeal and sent to any other “safe” country.
Under the new Johnson plan, those with inadmissible claims would be transferred from the UK to Rwanda on planes chartered by the government. The exceptions would be those who have vulnerabilities or safeguarding issues.
The prime minister acknowledged on Thursday that the new policy would face legal challenges, even though he insisted it was fully compliant with international legal obligations.
He said the UK government would have preferred a deal with France and the EU but this had not yet been possible.
Figures for Australia, which has pioneered the use of offshore processing centres, show that the country spent £461mn dealing with just 239 refugees and asylum seekers held offshore last year.
Asked whether that kind of cost would be justifiable for the proposed UK scheme, Johnson responded that the current cost of housing all asylum seekers in hotels was £5mn a day and rising.
The Home Office refused to comment on speculation from charities that the scheme could cost £1.4bn.
The prime minister admitted the plan was not a “magic bullet” and that it was part of a broader strategy, including having the Royal Navy take over Channel patrols from the Border Force.
Ministers on Thursday also announced a plan for a new multimillion-pound migrant processing centre at RAF Linton, a base in North Yorkshire.
Johnson admitted the principal aim of the Rwanda policy was to be a deterrent. “If they come across the Channel illegally in these vessels, then they risk ending up there and not in the UK, and that is something that I believe will over time prove a very considerable deterrent,” he said, without specifying who might be sent to Rwanda.
Johnson added that the deal could end up as a “prototype” for other countries to address the likely movement of billions of people across the planet in the coming years.
But Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, a charity, called the deal a “grubby cash-for-people plan”, which he said would be a “cowardly, barbaric and inhumane way” to treat people fleeing persecution and war.
Rwanda said it would receive an “upfront investment” of £120mn under the deal, which would “fund opportunities for Rwandans and migrants”, including secondary qualifications, vocational and skills training, language lessons, and higher education.
It said migrants would be integrated into communities across the country and would be entitled to “full protection” under local law, equal access to employment, and enrolment in healthcare and social care services.
Rwanda has a tradition of welcoming refugees, and currently hosts about 130,000, mainly from neighbouring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But its human rights record has been a subject of intense controversy. In July last year, Rita French, the UK’s international ambassador for human rights, criticised Rwanda’s record in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council.
Human rights activists also criticise Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, for brooking little political dissent. He won the 2017 presidential election with 98.6 per cent of the vote.
Proposals to process asylum seekers overseas have caused controversy because they contradict longstanding interpretations of the UK’s obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said on Thursday it could not comment on the deal but stressed it “does not support the externalisation of asylum states’ obligations”.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, described the proposal as “a desperate and shameful . . . attempt to distract from his own law breaking”, referring to the “partygate” scandal.