LONDON (NYTIMES) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans on Thursday (April 14) to send some asylum-seekers thousands of miles to Rwanda for processing and settlement there if their applications were successful, in a significant hardening of migration policy.
The British government has so far failed to curb the arrival of a small but steady flow of people making dangerous crossings, often on unseaworthy boats, across the English Channel from France, much to the frustration of Johnson.
In exchange for its cooperation, Britain will pay Rwanda £120 million (S$200 million) to finance "opportunities for Rwandans and migrants," including education, secondary qualifications, vocational and skills training, and language lessons, the Rwandan government said in a statement.
Rights groups have expressed concerns that the move could encourage other nations to adopt "offshoring" of asylum processing, and the plan was greeted with a storm of protest even before it was formally announced, because of concerns about both the principle behind the policy and the choice of Rwanda, a country whose rights record Britain has previously questioned.
In a speech on Thursday, Johnson said his plan could resettle thousands of migrants and would apply to those who had arrived since January, although legislation that would enable it is still going through Parliament.
He also conceded that the plan was likely to face legal challenges and "will not take effect overnight."
Johnson also said that asylum-seekers would, on arrival in Britain, be housed in centres, rather than hotels, and that the navy would take an enhanced role in tackling the channel crossings.
"They'll be housed in accommodations like those in Greece," said Johnson, referring to the camps there, some of which have earned a reputation for dismal conditions.
Priti Patel, Britain's home secretary, said in a statement that the agreement with Rwanda would see "those arriving dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily into the UK relocated to have their claims for asylum considered and, if recognised as refugees, to build their lives there."
The government has not made clear whether the plan will apply to all asylum-seekers arriving in Britain or just some. Johnson said it was "a striking fact that around 7 out of 10 of those arriving in small boats last year were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue-jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees."
The Rwandan government said people who are transferred to the country would be offered "legal pathways to residence" if their claims were successful.
Given the limited legal routes for refugees into Britain, that could effectively prevent many from making any asylum claims that would allow them to live in the country.
"The government of Rwanda is pleased to confirm a bold new partnership with the United Kingdom, which will take an innovative approach to addressing the global migration crisis," the government said in its statement.
"A broken migration and asylum system is failing to protect the vulnerable, and empowering criminal smuggling gangs at an immeasurable human cost."
Although the number of people arriving in Britain by boats is limited by international standards, the English Channel crossings have been a persistent embarrassment to Johnson's government.
In 2016, he successfully campaigned for Brexit, arguing it would allow the country to "take back control" of its borders, and the increasing number of arrivals along the British coastline are a visible symbol of failure to do so.
In his speech, Johnson said Britain "cannot sustain a parallel illegal system. Our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not."
Yvette Cooper, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on home-affairs issues, described the plan as "unworkable, unethical and extortionate."
It was, she wrote on Twitter, a "desperate and truly shameful announcement," and "an attempt to distract from Boris Johnson's lawbreaking," after the decision by police on Tuesday to fine Johnson for breaking lockdown rules by attending a birthday party at No. 10 Downing St.
Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party's lawmakers in the British Parliament, told the BBC that the proposal was "absolutely chilling." There were signs that even those that supported the idea in principle were yet to be convinced.
In an editorial, The Daily Mail, which championed Brexit and has backed efforts to curb migration, was supportive, but it said that the proposal was "fraught with difficulties" and noted that previous efforts by Britain to curb the flow of migrants across the English Channel had failed.
"From paying France to smash people-smugglers to armoured jet skis turning back illegal dinghies, not one Home Office gimmick has so far succeeded," it wrote.
Parliament is discussing a legal framework that would make it possible to transfer asylum-seekers out of the country while their applications are processed and to arrest those who arrive by boat across the English Channel.
Other countries have tried similar tactics to try to deter migrants, including Australia, which has used asylum processing centres on Pacific islands such as Nauru.
In September, Denmark's Parliament passed a law that allows the nation to relocate asylum-seekers outside Europe to have their refugee claims assessed, despite criticism from rights groups and the United Nations, but it has not taken the next step and acted on the legislation by relocating anyone.
When Britain began to unfurl elements last year of a plan for immigration that left the door open for offshore asylum processing, an assessment from the United Nations' refugee agency determined that many of the proposals held potential to undermine Britain's commitment to the 1951 UN convention on refugees.
Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, an organisation that works with refugees and asylum-seekers in Britain and conducts policy research, said that although it may take time for the full details of the plan to be released, meaning it was not yet possible to form definite conclusions on its legality, the proposals were likely to face many legal challenges.
The new plan at the very least undermined the spirit of the 1951 agreement, he said, and set a "dangerous precedent" that could mean other Western countries looking to outsource to countries such as Rwanda.
"The end result will be that most of the refugee population gets hosted in developing countries," he said, adding, "The principle of the convention is that people have a right to claim asylum in any country, that country should examine their asylum claim - and this completely undermines that principle."
Rwanda has in the past offered to host migrants who were stranded elsewhere. In 2017, it offered to receive up to 30,000 African migrants who had faced discrimination, trafficking and violence while in Libya.
The central African nation also has an agreement with the African Union and the United Nations refugee agency to continue evacuating and hosting refugees and immigrants from Libya through 2023.
Those who arrive in the emergency transit centres in the country are given the option of seeking resettlement to third countries, returning home or to a previous country of asylum, or to stay in Rwanda.
In a statement issued on Thursday, Rwanda's government said it was hosting 130,000 refugees from nations, including neighbouring Burundi and the Congo. In August, it also received students, teachers and the families of a girls boarding school who had fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took over the country.
The migrant pact comes just weeks after Johnston Busingye, Rwanda's new high commissioner to the Britain, arrived in London. The British government had been pressed to block Busingye's appointment given his role in the arrest of the dissident Paul Rusesabagina.
In February 2021, Busingye accidentally admitted in a video published by Al-Jazeera English that he had seen privileged legal material related to Rusesabagina's case and that the Rwandan government had paid for the private jet that lured him from the United Arab Emirates to the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
The trial of Rusesabagina, who helped save thousands during the Rwandan genocide and inspired the movie "Hotel Rwanda," and the 25-year sentence he received in September have drawn widespread criticism from rights groups, who said the proceedings represented "more public spectacle than judicial undertaking."