Britain’s new five-year asylum partnership arrangement with Rwanda is showing the rest of Europe how countries can possibly lock refugees out of their borders. And Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, is worried about this precedent.
In the wake of the refugee crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which five million people have fled the nation in the last four months, Grandi is wary that other countries might follow in Britain’s footsteps.
“And what am I going to tell them [other countries] if they say: ‘You know, a rich country like the UK is sending them abroad, I’ll do the same, I’ll close my border,'” he said at a recent media briefing, introducing a new report from the UN Refugee Agency on the soaring increase in refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced and stateless people globally in the last decade.
Grandi said the number of people seeking refuge worldwide has risen to 100 million and urgent action to deal with the influx was needed. “Either the international community comes together to take action to address this human tragedy, resolve conflicts and find lasting solutions or this terrible trend will continue,” he said.
On the back of the swelling mass of people displaced or forced from their homes, Grandi is concerned that more stable countries are looking for ways to minimize help to asylum seekers.
“The precedent that this creates is catastrophic for a concept that needs to be shared,” Grandi said, alluding to the new British asylum partnership with Rwanda. He asked Britain to find other approaches to managing its borders and asylum seekers there, saying that if the “UK and other countries wanted these dangerous journeys to stop, then there are other ways to do it.”
Even after the European Court of Human Rights temporarily stopped the move by the British government to send its first flight of refugees to Rwanda, in June, the British Home Office has remained adamant that a vetting center for asylum seekers is necessary to handle the influx of people arriving by boat through the English Channel.
Members of the leading Conservative Party in Britain’s parliament were dismayed by the ruling of the Strasbourg-based court and called for Britain to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, which binds Britain to the court’s judgments.
Greg Smith, the parliament member representing Buckingham, reminded the House of Commons of the need to repeal the Human Rights Act, the domestic law that gives the European court its supremacy, and instead pass a Bill of Rights to “remove all power of the European court of human rights over our sovereign decisions.”
Britain’s decision to set up an offshore processing center represents a step that has been treacherous ground for the European Union over the years. In a 2018 publication by Luca Lixi, an expert for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization in Washington, she said the European Union views “irregular migration” — including asylum seekers — from a transactional lens.
For years, the European Commission has been providing financial aid to Tunisia and Libya to incentivize both governments to stop migrants and refugees from leaving their borders. In 2014, the commission, which is the executive arm of the European Union, moved more concretely by signing a mobility partnership with Tunisia.
The agreement fast-tracks the processing of visa applications to the European Union and the rejection of asylum claimants without their leaving the shores of the North African country. Europe has mobility partnerships with eight other countries, including Morocco.
In addition to the mobility partnership facilities, media reports say the European Union has given war-torn Libya about $558 million from its Trust Fund for Africa. Much of the money has ostensibly gone into furnishing, arming and training Libya’s coast guard to intercept dinghies of migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into European waters.
The people who are returned by the coast guard to Libya have been reportedly tortured, raped, killed and forced to ask family members to pay ransoms for their release. Despite these violations of human rights, Europe is reportedly firming up its cooperation with Libya, which is in the middle of a governance crisis.
Since Britain left the European Union, it has experienced a surge in people smugglers routing refugees from the port of Calais in France to Britain through the English Channel. By mid-2021, 5,917 people had crossed into the channel on small boats. That number has now topped 10,000.
In July 2021, Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary, promised increased financing to France by about $66 million to prevent such crossings from Calais. Before a meeting with Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, in September that year, she accused France of not doing enough and threatened to pull the plug on the deal.
With the number of people crossing still rising, Britain struck a $144 million deal with Rwanda in April 2022 to take in asylum seekers who arrive in Britain. So far, they mostly come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other war-ravaged countries. Grandi said that although Rwanda has been historically quite good to refugees, welcoming Congolese and Burundians fleeing violence at home, it “does not have the structures to do that particular work.”
At the media briefing, Grandi shared success stories that can be adopted by countries facing a similar influx, saying: “There are countries taking in millions of refugees. I’m not talking about the Ukrainians. I’m talking about countries in Africa.”
In fact, Uganda has accepted the most refugees of any country in sub-Saharan Africa, taking in more than 1.5 million people, mainly from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.
The outpouring of condemnation within Britain and abroad has not deterred the government from changing its stance on asylum seekers. It reacted to the recent legal hurdle by the European court’s barring a flight to Rwanda by introducing a scheme to electronically tag refugees crossing the channel, reportedly starting with the seven people who should have been in Rwanda last Tuesday. (Which happened to be the same week that Rwanda hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended.)
To ensure the European Court of Human Rights does not scupper the next flight to Rwanda, the Conservative Party is accelerating the passage of the Bill of Rights. Dominic Raab, the British secretary of justice, who observers say is a staunch supporter of the bill, chaired a debate on the legislature in the lower chamber on June 22.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.