The UK-Rwanda Agreement Represents Another Blow to Territorial Asylum
The United Kingdom’s controversial deal with Rwanda to relocate certain asylum seekers there—not for offshore processing for possible settlement in the United Kingdom but as a permanent destination—symbolizes the next step in a broader policy push that some high-income countries are taking to externalize migration management.
Though other European countries, most notably Austria and Denmark, have eyed the option of offloading the responsibility for (spontaneously arriving) asylum seekers to third countries, the UK-Rwanda arrangement announced earlier this month shifts this policy ambition from a so far theoretical, still abstract, option to a seemingly tangible, ready-to-go program. If it results in successful relocation of asylum seekers, governments or politicians keen to limit the right to seek asylum upon entry to a foreign state—whether the arrival occurred legally or not—could present this deal as proof of concept for their own externalization plans. Even the agreement’s existence now serves as precedent for these parties to speak about this openly, for example reinvigorating Denmark’s interest in a similar plan.
If the UK-Rwanda deal survives expected legal challenges and becomes operational, the damage to the DNA of the post-World War II protection system can hardly be overstated. Not only does it derogate from, and openly question, the principle of territorial asylum, i.e. the right to access the (national) asylum process upon setting foot on land, but it also advances the idea that states can pay to cast off the responsibilities they signed up to under the 1951 Geneva Convention. (The UK government will pay Rwanda an initial GBP 120 million for economic development and growth, and will pick up operational costs of the program, along with accommodation and integration expenses.)
The arrangement threatens to intensify the reshaping of the global protection regime from a system driven by a shared moral commitment to a transactional one where countries that are willing to host (even more) refugees lever it to strike deals on trade, economic cooperation, or development, as exemplified by the larger partnership that Rwanda reached with the United Kingdom. And for the refugees themselves, it further makes them pawns, removing any sense of control and agency over their destiny and pushing them more into the hands of smugglers and traffickers.
Deterrence and its Obstacles
Claimed by its framers as a way to solve irregular entries, including small but increasing numbers of boat arrivals from across the Channel, the UK-Rwanda program would see certain spontaneously arriving asylum seekers relocated to Rwanda to claim asylum there. Even as the arrangement is billed as a migration management tool, the rhetoric deployed by its champions shows that the policy is aimed primarily at catering to a domestic audience, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson using the Brexit language of “taking back control” of immigration. If the UK government is successful in reducing the number of asylum seekers arriving spontaneously or at the least can sell that image to the domestic public, the policy will have achieved this political aim.
Taking the migration deterrence goals at face value, the policy’s success will not depend on the numbers of asylum seekers relocated to Rwanda but on the deterrent effect it could have on forestalling would-be migrants. For deterrence to have a chance at efficacy, the threat of relocation must be sufficiently credible to change the migration calculus. But the path to a program that regularly, if not consistently, relocates asylum seekers to Rwanda is fraught with obstacles.
First, the United Kingdom remains bound by international law, making UK authorities responsible for offering protection to certain groups of asylum seekers, such as unaccompanied children, those with family ties in the United Kingdom, and members of vulnerable groups. The same applies to asylum seekers from Rwanda, as their relocation back to their country could amount to refoulement, which is prohibited under international conventions to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. As the Johnson government realizes, identifying these cases will require screening infrastructure and a form of pre-asylum decisionmaking and could filter out many from the relocation scheme. UK legal obligations to this subset of asylum seekers and an administration that may need to find its feet amid this complex new legal and operational reality will open the government to legal challenges that are likely to delay and potentially preclude individual relocations. Successful litigation could even require the UK government to ask Rwanda to return previously relocated individuals. The more judges rule that particular individual asylum cases must be processed on UK soil, the less credible the threat of relocation becomes.
Second, the number of asylum seekers relocated under the scheme may also be limited by the agreement’s reliance on a principle of double voluntarism—both the United Kingdom and Rwanda need to agree to each person’s relocation. This principle may have been a key condition set by the Rwandan government and it opens the door to Rwanda deploying this de facto veto power when it sees fit (while still respecting the overall agreement). Amid opposition from the African Union and neighboring countries to the prospects of a similar Danish deal that was floated in 2021, the Rwandan government has already stated it will not accept relocation of citizens of neighboring countries or those with criminal records. The agreement’s flexibility also gives the United Kingdom leeway to allow “sympathetic” asylum seekers who have not used “safe and legal pathways”—for example Ukrainians—to nevertheless claim asylum in the United Kingdom. This likely would undermine the narrative of stamping out queue jumping and provide migrants with erratic, but psychologically persuasive, evidence that they might not get relocated to Rwanda.
Third, even if the UK government can relocate some asylum seekers to Rwanda, it is unclear at what point this could trigger a reduction in irregular arrivals and the extent of that drop. Past experience does not support the UK policy rationale. In the Americas, deterrence-minded enforcement policies have not stemmed the large numbers trying to enter the United States. Even the experience of Australia, another island, shows that offshoring asylum in and of itself did not prevent attempts at boat crossings. The designers of the UK policy have admitted as much: the Home Office, when attempting to project the Rwanda program’s cost savings, was not able to ascertain whether there would be a deterrent effect. Moreover, these experiences have shown that the deterrence that emerges just channels people away from popular routes. Instead, asylum seekers take even more dangerous chances and go underground upon arrival, setting the stage for futures marred by uncertainty and the potential for exploitation or abuse.
Implications beyond Britain
Whatever its deterrence or relocation outcomes, the UK-Rwanda arrangement will have far-reaching implications, possibly destabilizing the norms and architecture of the post-World War II protection system.
First, implementation of the deal will place greater pressure on law enforcement and asylum systems on the continent and create further tensions between the United Kingdom and its former allies in the European Union bloc as the use of more precarious routes and professionalized smuggling operations increase, and some migrants decide to seek asylum elsewhere. Having already stated its opposition to Denmark’s legislation, the European Commission has expressed strong criticism of the UK plan. Precisely at a time when the United Kingdom is facing rising Channel crossings, greater cooperation with the bloc could help address some of the challenges.
Second, the program’s adoption signals to other states, most notably Denmark, that reaching such an arrangement with a third country is not an impossible task. As such, it has restarted Denmark’s pursuit of a similar program with Rwanda, and may prompt other externalization-driven countries to act.
Finally, the agreement tests the extent to which externalization can be cloaked in the language of offering protection and pass muster. In the British government’s telling, the relocation program will respect the Refugee Convention as asylum seekers will have the opportunity to have their claims heard in Rwanda in full accordance with the convention. It is not impossible to build a transfer system that complies with guaranteed rights. But Home Secretary Priti Patel and others will need to share significantly more detail regarding the use of detention, procedural and operational safeguards, and provisions for fair treatment and integration of refugees recognized under the accord. If judges deem these as meeting the letter, if not the spirit, of international obligations, other countries could copy the approach.
While the UK-Rwanda agreement is unlikely to lead to substantial relocations or deterrence of irregular migration, its blow to the principle of territorial asylum is a serious one. In pursuit of short-term policy and political goals, the United Kingdom and those countries that follow suit will be neglecting the investments of political, development, and humanitarian capital that could build the partnerships needed to stabilize a refugee regime already under grave stress amid record displacement.