The deal made by the UK to send migrants for processing and relocation to Rwanda is at odds with States’ responsibility to take care of those in need of protection, the UN refugee agency says.

First published: April 2022.

In an initial response, UNHCR spelled out that it was not a party to negotiations that have taken place between London and Kigali, which it is understood were part of an economic development partnership.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the scheme costing £120 million would “save countless lives” from human trafficking, and the often treacherous water crossing between southern England and the French coast, known as the English Channel.

Johnson said the plan would stop “vile people smugglers” turning the ocean into a “watery graveyard.”

“Our compassion may be infinite but our capacity to help people is not.

“We can't ask the British taxpayer to write a blank cheque to cover the costs of anyone who might want to come and live here.”

PM Boris Johnson gave a speech on immigration in Dover. | Flickr/Number 10 - Tim Hammond

The UN refugee agency explains it ‘firmly’ opposes the UK-Rwanda offshore migration processing deal.

“UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, describing the arrangements as shifting asylum responsibilities and evading international obligations that are “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.”

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Stand in solidarity

UNHCR urged both countries to re-think the scheme, warning that instead of deterring refugees from perilous journeys, the externalization arrangements would only magnify risks, causing refugees to seek alternative routes, and exacerbate pressures on frontline States migrants are seeking to pass through.

While Rwanda has for decades generously provided a safe haven to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, the majority live in camps with limited access to economic opportunities.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and Minister Biruta sign the migration and economic development partnership between the UK and Rwanda. | Flickr/UK Home Office

UNHCR underscored that wealthier nations must show solidarity in supporting Rwanda and the refugees it already hosts, and not the other way around.

“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy,” said Ms Triggs. “They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”

UNHCR said in its statement that the UK has an obligation to ensure access for asylum seekers – integrating those deemed to be refugees and safely returning to their country of origin, people with no legal basis to stay.

However, Britain is instead adopting arrangements that abdicate responsibility to others, thus threatening the international refugee protection regime that has stood the test of time and saved millions of lives over the decades.

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Manage sanctuary

The UK has often supported UNHCR, providing important contributions that help protect refugees and support countries in conflicts, including Ukraine, the agency noted.

However, financial support abroad for certain refugee crises cannot replace the responsibility of States and the obligation to receive asylum seekers and protect refugees on their own territory – irrespective of race, nationality and mode of arrival, the UN agency stressed.

While UNHCR recognizes the challenges posed by forced displacement, it maintained that developed countries host only a fraction of the world’s refugees and have the capacity to manage asylum claims in a humane, fair and efficient manner.

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No externalizing asylum

In the past, UNHCR has also spoken out against Australia’s migrant offshore processing policy, which involved redirecting people on the move to Nauru, a Pacific island, thousands of kilometres away.

UNHCR has made it clear it does not support the externalization of asylum by countries, including measures taken to transfer asylum-seekers and refugees to other nations, with insufficient safeguards to protect their rights, or where this leads to the shifting rather than the sharing of responsibilities to protect them.

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