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The U.K. wants to send refugees to Rwanda. That’s become a trend.

Similar plans in other countries suggest the U.K. program will endanger migrants, not protect them.

With global attention focused on the plight of people fleeing Ukraine, the U.K. government has announced a new pay-for-processing program with Rwanda. The policy would further close already heavily restricted U.K. borders by allowing British officials to target people arriving via the English Channel and send some of them 4,000 miles away.

It is a response to ongoing debates in a post-Brexit context about how to stem arrivals to British shores — and, ultimately, how to limit who obtains asylum in the United Kingdom.

The agreement’s official end goal is that U.K.-bound asylum seekers would voluntarily resettle in Rwanda or a third country or return to their home countries. Rwanda has a relatively integrative policy toward social inclusion, public services and economic opportunities. However, Rwanda’s domestic record of stifling human rights means that asylum seekers will struggle to access rights and freedoms.

‘Outsourcing’ is a growing trend

The agreement exemplifies a trend across Western nations. By excluding asylum seekers in the name of rescue and security, countries shift those apprehended at their borders to nations in the Global South. This approach is controversial — and, according to U.N. officials, raises legal questions. In violating international agreements and humanitarian principles about the right to claim asylum, the policy also suggests those seeking safety deserve no say in their destination.

A number of policies and practices threaten asylum seekers’ rights in Europe and other Western countries. Since 2017, an agreement between Italy and Libya returns individuals crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Libyan detention centers. Since December 2013, Israel deported more than 4,000 Sudanese and Eritrean nationals to Uganda and Rwanda.

No longer able to return certain asylum seekers to E.U. countries following Brexit, the U.K. has sought to criminalize precarious migration and outsource asylum processing and detention. U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel has consulted Australian leaders who implemented a rigorous offshore detention policy. The U.K. plan also resembles a 2021 agreement between Denmark and Rwanda.

The U.K. plan reinforces old stereotypes

The U.K. announcement perpetuates the criminalization of migrants — and racializes and genders asylum seeking. In his speech introducing the agreement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested men are “paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees.” This unfounded claim implies that the policy would target single men and send them on to Rwanda, a country the U.K. government called “one of the world’s safest nations.”

In addition to violating asylum seekers’ rights, this approach would bolster a culture of suspicion among U.K. citizens that non-White migrants, especially men, represent a threat. Although officials have yet to hear the asylum claims of those crossing, Johnson reiterated popular discourse that presumes single men are “economic migrants taking advantage of the asylum system.” Johnson’s assertion suggests that these migrants are undeserving of U.K. protection or even the possibility of entering into the U.K. while their asylum petitions are pending.

Similar rhetoric in Europe shaped racist, xenophobic border policy since its “refugee crisis” garnered global attention in 2015. One irony of this rhetoric is how few refugees are actually hosted in European vs. African nations. For example, Rwanda hosts a slightly larger number of refugees than the U.K does, as shown in the figure below. But with twice the population density of the U.K., Rwanda effectively hosts five times as many per capita.

Total number of refugees in the U.K. and Rwanda, 2000 to 2020

What is Rwanda’s track record?

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has praised Rwanda for adopting “among the most progressive policies worldwide to support refugee self-reliance” and creating an “enabling environment” that offers refugees rights to free movement and to work — rights that are relatively rare within Africa or globally. But in practice, research suggests most refugees fail to obtain these rights.

Many of the displaced remain dependent on humanitarian aid, which often falls short. UNHCR’s annual budget for Rwanda refugee operations is only 11 percent funded, for instance. This figure doesn’t factor in the needs of additional asylum seekers the U.K. would send.

The U.K. government proposes to pay Rwanda nearly $160 million to help defray the costs of taking in additional refugees. But evidence from Australia suggests that outsourcing asylum processing costs significantly more than projected. The funds from the U.K. will probably not suffice.

Like refugee populations globally, those hosted in Rwanda are at a significant risk for sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation. These risks are higher for women, girls, unaccompanied youths, LGBTQI individuals and people with disabilities. In an extreme example in 2018, Rwandan police killed 11 Congolese refugees who demonstrated against reductions to food aid.

Well-documented rights repression in Rwanda raises fundamental questions about the U.K.’s plan. In addition, if refugees don’t have the ability to integrate within Rwanda, there’s a heightened risk that Rwanda will become a transit rather than a destination country. This suggests the U.K. proposal wouldn’t actually deter unsafe migration, but instead risk prompting people to undertake repeated and increasingly unsafe journeys.

‘Anywhere but here’ policies are dangerous

Policies that delay or prohibit migrants from filing asylum claims put people on the move at greater risk and can lead to border deaths. By relocating those the U.K. marks as “threatening” or “illegal,” the U.K. government underscores that Rwanda and other countries in the Global South are the legitimate places for “undesirable” non-European, non-White, and/or non-Christian migrants.

In Rwanda, according to Johnson, those granted refugee status will have “the opportunity to build a new life in that dynamic country, supported by the funding we are giving them.” Ignoring that many head to the U.K. hoping to reach family, friends and specific opportunities there, this agreement with Rwanda suggests asylum seekers deserve no agency in choosing where they settle.

If the U.K.-Rwanda agreement follows the trend of other European outsourcing efforts, it won’t guarantee safety and rights as promised. It will, instead, legitimize anti-immigrant racism within the U.K., while leaving those seeking protection in continued precarity.

Eleanor Paynter (@ebpaynter) is a postdoctoral associate with the Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Migrations Initiative at Cornell University and hosts the “Migrations: A World on the Move” podcast. She researches Africa-Europe migration and asylum in Europe, focusing on race, colonial memory and migrant testimony.

Christa Kuntzelman (@ChristaKuntzel1) is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University. Her research questions how refugees in Uganda understand their rights and explores broader themes of refugee agency as humanitarian service providers and as stakeholders in global policymaking.

Rachel Beatty Riedl (@BeattyRiedl) is the director of the Einaudi Center for International Studies, John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and professor in the Department of Government and Brooks School of Public Policy at Cornell University. She is the author of “Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa” (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and co-host of the podcast “Ufahamu Africa.”