‘I am very scared’: refugees await judgment on UK’s Rwanda policy

It has been more than three months since two of the UK’s most senior judges sifted through thousands of pages of evidence and heard opposing arguments from some of the country’s lawyers about whether or not the government’s controversial plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda are lawful. On Monday at 10.30am, at the Royal Courts of Justice, they will deliver their judgment.

The government’s plan to export asylum seekers from one of the world’s richest countries to one of the world’s poorer nations, 4,000 miles away, is so radical that no other country has attempted anything like it.

The government says it must introduce the Rwanda policy to deter asylum seekers from crossing the Channel in small boats. So far, £140m has been paid to Rwanda and not a single asylum seeker sent there.

And it’s hard to find evidence of any deterrent effect. Record numbers have crossed the Channel this year, with an increase after the Rwanda announcement on 14 April. More than 45,000 have crossed so far this year, including 350 people in seven boats in freezing conditions on Saturday. In 2021, the total number of people who crossed was 28,526.

Privilege Style, the commercial airline engaged by the Home Office to make the first Rwanda flight on 14 June which was grounded, has now said it will no longer be involved in flying people to Rwanda. Although Sir James Eadie KC, representing the government, assured the court that the Rwanda scheme had specific safeguarding elements built into it and “there has been the most intensive investigation of that scheme imaginable”, little emerged in the documents to give comfort to critics.

What the documents show, beginning with a diplomatic telegram from the British high commissioner to Rwanda, dated 18 September 2020, are repeated concerns about the unsuitability of Rwanda as a destination country for asylum seekers. The high commissioner expressed alarm about a lack of freedom of speech and the disappearance of opponents of the country’s president, Paul Kagame.

As the plans developed, the criticisms from government officials multiplied: extrajudicial killings; the recruitment of refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries, including children aged 15-17 to fight across Rwanda’s border in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; a red traffic-light rating in relation to human rights; and a clear recommendation made to the director general at the Home Office on 23 April 2021 not to pursue Rwanda as an option.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has been particularly vocal in its criticism of the Rwanda scheme. Disclosures show the agency’s opposition to offshore processing deals as “burden shifting rather than responsibility sharing” was well known by the government.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed between UK and Rwanda but if either side breaches it no court can hold the parties to account because a MoU is less legally binding than a treaty.

The two judges in the case, Lord Justice Lewis and Mr Justice Swift, have heard several separate cases about the Rwanda deal, including one from several asylum seekers – alongside the charities Care4Calais and Detention Action, and the PCS union – and another from the charity Asylum Aid.

What is almost certain is that whoever is on the ‘losing side’ of tomorrow’s judgment will appeal. The judgment could trigger a series of appeals through all the domestic courts and on to the European court of human rights. The timescale and chances of the home secretary’s ‘dream’ of getting a Rwanda flight into the air remain unclear.

‘If they send people to Rwanda, they will die’

Hayat (not his real name) an asylum seeker from Eritrea, lost both his parents when he was a child. He tried to find safety first in Ethiopia and then Sudan before managing to reach Russia in 2018 and then travelling on to Ukraine where he claimed asylum.

But no decision had been made about his case when Russia invaded Ukraine in February so, unlike Ukrainian citizens who were eligible to apply for a visa to come to the UK, he fled to France and arrived in the UK using the dangerous small boat route.

“They have accepted thousands of Ukrainian refugees – so what about us? We are from the same place, so why are we being treated differently?” he asked.

Since arriving in the UK, he has received a notice of intent from the Home Office saying he is being considered for forced removal to Rwanda.

“I am very scared every night about Rwanda. I can’t sleep. I have flashbacks about Ukraine and the war, And now I have Rwanda too. It is so bad that I am receiving medical help. “I am African, I come from that continent. I know about Rwanda and the problems that the country has had. If they send people to Rwanda, they will die. I will commit suicide if they try and put me on a plane.”

Hayat is receiving support from refugee charity Care4Calais. He is supporting their campaign with trade union PCS to secure safe passage for refugees.

Clare Moseley, Care4Calais founder, said: “Hayat has experienced unbelievable pain and danger but, because he originally came from Eritrea, our government did not allow him safe passage from Ukraine, despite his life being under threat from the war there. Now they want to forcibly deport him to Rwanda where we cannot guarantee his safety. No victim of war, torture or human rights abuses should be put though this trauma. The UK can and should do better.”

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