One-way Ticket to Africa

by Thomas Müller, Simone Schlindwein, Merle Thiel, Sascha Zinflou.

The featured image is from @StpDeportations

The Migration Deal between Rwanda and Great Britain

On 13 April this year, the British Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Rwandan Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Vincent Biruta signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Kigali on an „asylum partnership“ between their countries. For an initial period of five years, the agreement is to allow the UK to bring people seeking asylum to Rwanda without further examination, where they can undergo a procedure according to Rwandan law and subsequently either be granted the right to stay in Rwanda, be taken in by another state within the framework of resettlement, or be deported to their home countries. There is no plan for them to return to the UK even if they are recognised as refugees. In return, the UK will pay the Rwandan government £120 million and agree to take in „a small portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees“ currently living in Rwanda. The agreement was made retroactively for the period from 1 January 2022 and is explicitly aimed at refugees who have reached the UK via the Channel route from northern France. At the same time, however, it is so broadly formulated that it effectively affects everyone who has entered the country from the EU, or another third country classified as safe, regardless of their origin.

Reactions and Preliminary Failure

While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson celebrated the migration deal as a „world premiere“ and a „powerful deterrent“ and the Home Secretary already sees it as a replacement for the „broken“ asylum system, non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, lawyers and the UNHCR were appalled. In an open letter, more than 160 NGOs spoke of a „shamefully cruel“ deal. Several organisations filed complaints against the implementation of the agreement. Through the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the first flight with seven people, scheduled for 14 June 2022, was prevented from departing. Previously, the UK High Court dismissed a complaint filed by Care4Calais and Detention Action together with the Public and Commercial Services Union and four migrants who were to be deported on 14 June 2022. The ruling was based on the assumption that Rwanda would comply with the agreement, even though it is not legally binding, but acknowledged that the decision to treat Rwanda as a safe third country was based on insufficient investigation. An appeal against the ruling was rejected by the Supreme Court on 14 June 2022.

Following an emergency appeal submitted on 13 June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg considered the case of an Iraqi national who had applied for asylum in the UK on 17 May 2022 and was due to be transferred to Rwanda on 14 June 2022. The Court ruled, just hours before the scheduled removal, „that the applicant should not be removed until the expiry of a period of three weeks from the date of the final domestic decision in the ongoing judicial review proceedings.“ The decision was also based on concerns raised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that asylum seekers transferred to Rwanda from the UK do not have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures. As well as Rwanda’s designation as a safe third country and the risk of treatment contrary to the applicant’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, Rwanda is outside the scope of that Convention and thus there would have been no legally enforceable mechanism for the applicant’s return to the UK in the case of a successful appeal in the domestic courts.

This decision stopped the scheduled flight with seven people and at the same time created the possibility for the remaining six people to raise similar objections. The British government, however, wants to continue with its plans, and so the British Home Secretary announced after the failure of the flight that „we won’t be deterred from delivering on our plans to do the right thing and deliver a fairer system.“

Problematic Conditions and a Dubious Partner

Even if the flight was prevented for the time being, fundamental questions remain open regarding the criteria according to which persons are selected for deportation.

Care4Calais estimates that 130 people are in detention awaiting transfer, more than a third of them from Sudan. The announcement to also transfer two people who are still minors according to a medical report commissioned by Care4Calais, but who are considered adults by the Ministry of Interior, is sensitive. According to reports by Care4Calais, more than 70% of the people with deportation orders have been subjected to torture or human trafficking either in their countries of origin or during their fleeing. In addition to the often traumatising experience of fleeing, the new imprisonment and fear of being transferred to Rwanda places a further mental burden on many of those affected, leading to despair and hopelessness. One man who was tortured in Libya and is now in detention pending deportation reported that „every time the door of his room slams, he thinks back to the torture in Libya. It makes him feel like he is going insane.“ Another man said his body could be sent to Rwanda, that he would rather die than go there. In response to impending transfers to Rwanda and a lack of information from the state, 17 migrants at Brook House detention centre went on a five-day hunger strike. According to the BBC, the hunger strike ended after staff refused to give the strikers sugar to mix with water.

The agreement, conceived as a deterrent primarily against channel migrants, is thus problematic in several respects: Great Britain is attempting to eliminate any examination of a need for protection or, as in the case of minors, an obstacle to deportation (the negation of which would require a proper and legally verifiable age determination in this case) and largely denies arriving people the opportunity to legally defend themselves against the decision on their resettlement – the concept of asylum as an individual right is thus de facto abolished.

Furthermore, Rwanda is a partner that raises political and rule-of-law concerns. According to the Economist’s Democracy Index, the country is considered an authoritarian regime and is ranked 127 out of 167. Official British sources also repeatedly point to deficits in democracy and human rights. Even though the British Home Office revised and toned down its assessment of the human rights situation in Rwanda on 11 May 2022 after the conclusion of the agreement, Rwanda still scores strongly below average in this assessment compared to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of freedom of association, political freedom and violence by state authorities. Discrimination against LGBTQI* is not considered separately, however, the UK government’s Foreign Travel Advice for Rwanda warns that „homosexuality […] is not illegal but remains condoned by many“ and „LGBTQI* people can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities.“ The revision of the human rights report in the context of the agreement also points to a foreign policy problem: Rwanda, whose democratic development, according to the assessment of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), „has so far not kept pace with its socio-economic one“, will have less to fear from the UK in terms of criticism. The priority is to give the channel migrants the most depressing prospects possible.

The Border Trap

The deterrence of Channel Migrants by the perspective of being deported to Rwanda if they reach their destination is set in the context of a long development that began in 1986 with the planning of the Channel Tunnel. While the British-continental European border had not been fundamentally different from other borders until then, with the planning and implementation of the advance border controls it begins to take on a special role – increasingly fortified in the direction of Britain and geographically advanced into French territory. In addition to the actual transport hubs, i.e. the Channel Tunnel, the ferry ports and the long-distance railway stations, the apron of these facilities and finally the entire coastal area and its hinterland were also included as secondary zones until today. Thus, on the French side, it developed into a border trap where many people with the migration destination of Great Britain were stranded and had to set up temporarily in informal places of living.

In 2015 the region came to international attention with the formation of the large Jungle of Calais, which at times housed around ten thousand people until its destruction in 2016 – a kind of Moria on French territory. Since then, the prevention of a new Jungle has been a top priority for both French and British politicians and is implemented with sometimes brute measures: In Calais and the surrounding area, the migrants are being denied elementary services of basic necessity; the camps that keep springing up are being evacuated at least every 48 hours, tents and other property are being confiscated on a large scale, and the distribution of food and aid by groups without a state mandate is forbidden in large parts of the city. Police violence and deadly incidents while trying to cross the border happen on a regular basis. Nevertheless, this policy has neither been particularly successful in preventing informal settlements, nor in preventing migration. Since the eviction of the large Jungle, 1,500 to 3,000 people have been living in informal camps in the Calais region, depending on the season.

Since autumn 2018, a new migration route from northern France to the UK has been gaining importance: the significant increase in passages of the English Channel in small boats. The English Channel is so narrow at Calais that the British coast is visible to the naked eye on a clear day. Although boats had already been used to cross the border in individual cases before 2018, the months of October to December 2018 are the first time that we can speak of a mass phenomenon, with around 400 documented successful passages. After just under 2,000 people in 2019, about 8,500 in 2020 and about 28,500 in 2021, the number of successful passages this year already exceeded 10,000 people at the beginning of June and was thus twice as high as in the same period in 2021. Although the development can certainly be interpreted as a failure of a policy aimed at preventing migration, it was and is accompanied by populist discourses hallucinating an invasion of the British Isles from the sea and the ever further exploration of options for a policy of closure. This includes practices in the border area such as pushbacks at sea, the use of the military or now the transfer of the arrivals to Rwanda.

The Attempt of a Post-Brexit Migration System

Simultaneously with the establishment of the maritime cross-channel route, the Brexit took place. It solidified the ideological pattern of an island nation that had to assert its national sovereignty vis-à-vis the EU and regain control over its border – which, after leaving the EU on 31 January 2020 and the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, which is much more important in terms of migration policy, was increasingly applied to undocumented migration and escalated to boat passages in the English Channel.

Brexit legally transformed the UK’s maritime border with France into a new EU external border and was accompanied by the UK’s exit from the legal framework of the EU’s Dublin Regulations. This meant that from 1 January 2021, the UK could no longer deport migrants on this basis who had already been registered in an EU state. For the people affected, the journey to Great Britain meant protection from deportation to Italy, Greece or Poland, for example, which they were threatened with inside the EU. Brexit thus reinforced the importance of Britain not only as a direct refuge, but indirectly its importance as a secondary migration destination for people who ultimately became displaced people in the EU. Instead of – in Conservative terminology – regaining control over borders, the Brexit created an extremely strong reason to cross them informally.

The Johnson government reacted with a multitude of measures, some of them grotesque in appearance, which were inspired by particularly restrictive migration policies from EU and Commonwealth countries and bundled in a new border and nationality act, the Nationality and Borders Act, passed on 27 April 2022.

A preventive reaction to the end of Dublin deportations was the attempt by the British Home Office to deport as many boat passengers as possible to an EU country in the months before the exit from the Dublin system. Under the name „Operation Sillath“, the capacities for the deportation of at least 1,000 people were to be bundled in the second half of 2020. However, only a fraction were actually deported, but these in some cases with considerable use of force. Since then, the British government has repeatedly demanded new agreements on deportations from France and the EU to compensate for leaving the Dublin system, but these have not been agreed to date.

When the frequency of the Channel route increased noticeably in parallel, a frantic activity began in London. At the beginning of October 2020, British media reported that the Home Office was considering pushbacks in the English Channel and the construction of a floating barrier, similar to the one planned by Greece for part of the Aegean Sea at the same time. While the latter was quickly discarded, the following year the UK Border Force actually created the means to prevent inflatable boats from crossing the maritime border in certain circumstances using jet skis. At the same time, Britain pressed the French government for bilateral agreements on cooperation in pushbacks and joint patrols in French territory, which Paris categorically rejected. The conflict escalated after Johnson claimed that France’s refusal was partly to blame for a deadly accident on 24 November 2021. Ultimately, the British government withdrew its pushback plan in April 2021, shortly before a judicial decision, without any actual pushback having been documented by then. The failed pushbacks were linked early on to the idea of a facility for offshore asylum procedures similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Media reports in this phase speculated about the creation of such offshore centres on English and Scottish islands, in the British Overseas Territories of Ascension Island and St Helena, and even on rented ferries or oil rigs in the North Sea.

Die dritte Komponente eines Post-Brexit-Migrationssystems war die Suche nach einem neuen administrativen und rechtlichen Rahmen, um über die EU einreisende Migrant_innen aus dem britischen Asylsystem auszuschließen. Eine erste konzeptionelle Bündelung erfuhr diese Politik mit den New Plan for Immigration, den Innenministerin Patel am 24. März 2021 vorlegte. Der Plan richtete sich in erster Linie gegen die Bootspassagen im Ärmelkanal und stellte ein künftiges Zwei-Klassen-Asylsystem vor: Die Art und Weise, wie eine Person Großbritannien erreicht hat, sollte zukünftig den Zugang zu einer Bleibeperspektive in Großbritannien definieren. Alle, die „illegal“ nach Großbritannien eingereist sind, sollten als „unzulässig“ („inadmissible“) aus dem Asylverfahren ausgeschlossen bleiben und lediglich Zugang zu einem reduzierten Verfahren erhalten. Idealerweise sollten sie umgehend „in den sicheren Drittstaat, von dem sie in See gestochen sind“ („to the safe country of most recent embarkation“) zurückgeführt werden – im Fall der Bootspassagier_innen also nach Frankreich oder Belgien. Für den Fall, dass diese einer Rücknahme nicht zustimmten, sah der Plan Abkommen mit „alternativen Drittstaaten“ („alternative safe third countries“) vor, als weitere Option sollte eine Ergänzung des bestehenden Einwanderungs- und Asylrechts die Möglichkeit zur „Entwicklung der Kapazitäten für ein Offshore-Asylverfahren“ offenhalten.

Those who have been classified as „inadmissible“ and thus automatically earmarked for rapid removal should, according to the same plan, be housed separately and detained: „[W]e plan to introduce new asylum reception centres to provide basic accommodation and process claims. We will also maintain the facilities to detain people where removal is possible within a reasonable timescale.“ It is very likely that the accommodation of boat migrants in Napier Barracks, a former military facility in Folkestone, served to prepare this future policy from the end of 2020 onwards.

After the foreign policy conflict with France following the accident on 24 November 2021, the conclusion of a readmission agreement had become a distant prospect. At the beginning of 2022, there were increasing indications that the UK was now working towards a transfer to a non-European state. At the end of January, the government surprisingly announced that it would transfer responsibility for combating boat migrants in the English Channel from the civilian authorities to the navy. Under the name „Operation Isotrope“, it prepared a militarisation of the border regime, which, however, aimed less at preventing entry than at the most complete possible registration of migrants and their controlled accommodation. On 14 April, one day after the signing of the Rwanda Agreement, Johnson announced the implementation of this re-organisation, which was important for its practical implementation.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 of 27 April 2022 is based on the New Plan for Immigration described above. It enshrines the policy outlined therein in law and thus establishes a legal framework – albeit a legally questionable one – for the Rwanda Covenant of 13 April 2022.

Saving Lives?

Again and again, supporters of a repressive migration policy declare the intention to save lives by discouraging people from crossing the channel in small boats. Even though the boat passages are extremely dangerous, and there were already lethal incidents before 2018, the motive seems pretended. The fortification makes the border deadly: with each new attempt to systematically prevent the departure of small boats through increased police presence, camera surveillance or a Frontex surveillance plane, the geographical space from which departures to the UK are attempted expands. The routes for the passages become longer and more dangerous.

With the increase in both boat passages and attempts to prevent them, a situation developed from 2020 where people usually die in the English Channel in the autumn months. Only particularly tragic accidents get publicity, such as the one on 24 November 2021, when at least 27 people drowned, and their rescue was delayed by almost twelve hours due to wrangling between the British and French rescue services. The situation is by now so dramatic that NGOs not only take on the task of putting pressure on the authorities in case of emergency, but have also started to organise sea rescue. With Channel Rescue a project started which is similar to sea rescue projects in the Mediterranean Sea.

 Policies aimed at preventing migration are fatal for the people who risk their lives in a market that is considered lucrative for smugglers, but the question is to what extent the level of repression is actually the key driver of the number of passages. When Serbia established visa-free travel for Iranians in 2018 and they were able to reach the beginning of the Balkan route by plane, boat passages increased because, for the first time, a larger group of people stranded in Calais had not undergone a traumatising passage of the Mediterranean. When the German „welcome culture“ ended in 2016, many people found themselves in Calais for whom Britain was not originally the primary migration destination. And above all, the UK’s departure from the Dublin system made the Channel route an attractive migration path for many people.

Why Rwanda Takes in the Migrants

In recent years, Rwanda has repeatedly presented itself as a reception country for refugees and migrants. There are currently about 120,000 refugees living in Rwanda, mainly from the neighbouring countries Burundi and Congo. In addition, there are a few hundred Eritreans and Somalis who were brought to Rwanda from Libya by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in recent years.

Being a host country is part of the Rwandan identity today. This is because most Rwandan nationals, like President Paul Kagame himself, grew up in refugee camps in the region or in exile in Europe or North America. Already at the end of the 1950s and in the 1970s, there had been pogroms in the small country against the Tutsi minority, to which Kagame also belongs. The genocide of over one million Tutsis in 1994 triggered one of the largest refugee movements on the continent.

Activists in London argued before the court that Rwanda was not a safe country because President Paul Kagame ruled there with a hard hand and hardly allowed any opposition. Kagame, on the other hand, defended the deal, stressing that it was not „trading people“ but „we are actually helping them“. They would have a chance to build a new life in Rwanda. Joseph Rwagatare, Kagame’s presidential advisor, accuses the British NGOs of „inventing horror stories about Rwanda“ in regard to the lawsuits.

When the refugee deal was signed in April 2022, preparations were in full swing in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Meeting (CHOGUM) in June: new hotels, roads and conference venues had just been completed for the most important international summit of Commonwealth nations, a prestigious event for Rwanda. Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta while signing the agreement stressed that Rwanda „welcomes“ this partnership with the UK: „This is about ensuring that people are protected, respected and empowered to advance their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they desire to do so.“

But Rwanda is also benefiting from this. After the Corona crisis and the expensive investments in infrastructure, Rwanda now has a deficit in the national budget. With the deal, this can be eased: Rwanda’s government will receive the aforementioned 120 million pounds (144 million euros) from London in return. The so-called Economic Transformation and Integration Fund is to be used primarily for secondary education, university and vocational training as well as language courses, not only for migrants, according to the agreement. This will benefit the country in the long term, because the education offered is also aimed at Rwanda’s youth. Rwanda in turn guarantees the migrants a work permit and free access to health care. In the long term, the fund will also support start-ups of young entrepreneurs, especially in Rwanda’s emerging tech scene.

Rwandan Deal on Migration with the UNHCR for Libya

Refugee admission in exchange for development aid – this plan, however, has met with widespread criticism. The UN refugee agency UNHCR spoke of a violation of the UN Refugee Convention. 160 British aid associations have unanimously condemned the programme as „disgraceful and cruel“. They estimate the true costs at up to the equivalent of 1.7 billion euros per year.

The UNHCR’s criticism of the British-Rwandan agreement contrasts with the fact that the UNHCR itself is doing something similar. Since 2019, UNHCR charter flights from Libya have been landing in Kigali every few months. On board: migrants and refugees, mostly from West and East Africa, who have been evacuated from Libyan camps by the UNHCR. Brutal conditions are prevalent in these camps: Torture and rape are daily fare. The so-called „Emergency Transit Mechanism“ (ETM), funded with 12.5 million euros by the European Union from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, was established through a declaration of intent between UNHCR, the government of Rwanda and the African Union (AU).

In November 2021, Rwanda, the AU and UNHCR prolonged the corresponding agreement until the end of 2023. So far, over 1,000 people have been flown out to Rwanda in this way – most recently at the beginning of June. They have the choice of staying in Rwanda, returning to their home country or being resettled in another third country. 70 percent choose one of the latter two options, thus leaving Rwanda again. The UNHCR in Rwanda states: So far, 629 refugees have been resettled in various countries in Europe and Canada. The remaining people are „going through different case management processes“, according to the UNHCR spokesperson.

Currently, about 370 migrants are living in the UNHCR reception centre in Gashora, about 60 kilometres outside the Rwandan capital Kigali. Most of them are waiting for a permit from third countries to be resettled there. Those who do not receive a permit and do not want to return to their home country have the right to stay in Rwanda, to study or to obtain a work permit.

According to UNHCR, this is a measure of „emergency humanitarian assistance for the dire and life-threatening conditions“. Refugees and asylum seekers give their consent before they are evacuated. This is not the case in the migration deal with London.

The Israel Deal

But there have also been involuntary deportations to Rwanda. In 2016, the taz reported on a secret deal between Rwanda and Israel. At that time, the government of Israel toughened the immigration laws and wanted to get rid of the African refugees stranded there. Most had been living in Israel for years, each with a three-month toleration, many in camps in the desert. One of these camps, Holot, was to be closed in 2015. About 45,000 African refugees were living in Israel at the time. According to a report by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) in September 2015, some 1,500 refugees had agreed to the deportation from Israel to a third country „as a result of massive pressure“ in the previous two years. It is known, it continues, that the refugees were „almost exclusively sent to Rwanda and Uganda„. Some reported having to sign a form in Israel confirming their voluntary departure and being handed $3,500 by Israeli authorities to build a new life in Africa. And there are reports that some of them were picked up by Rwandan government planes in Israel and flown to Kigali, while others were transferred to Rwanda via commercial airlines. In return, Israel, with which Rwanda maintains close relations, is said to have helped Rwanda train its intelligence agents.

Most of those taken in were Eritreans and some Somalis. They reported that they were accommodated in a house in Kigali and after a few days they were illegally taken across the border to the bordering country Uganda by smugglers. On the way, they had to cede a large part of the money they had received to these smugglers. Uganda has one of the most liberal refugee policies in the world, over a million refugees live there, among them many Eritreans and Somalis who took in their compatriots smuggled via Rwanda. The problem: they were not granted refugee status in Uganda because they entered via a safe third country. Rwanda’s government vehemently denies this deal.

Conclusion: A Model for the EU?

The near future of the UK-Rwanda agreement is now in the hands of British courts. While complete failure – as in the case of the pushbacks – cannot be ruled out at the legal level, it is to be feared that the mechanism will remain in place in a modified form. The British government has already made it clear that it expects difficulties in implementation and would not be discouraged by them. There will be long legal and political negotiations in Britain in the coming months on the conditions under which the agreement can be implemented in practice. The numerical significance of the agreement, however, remains completely open. The fact that the British government did not want to take the first deportation flight as a sign of the future, even before it failed, is not surprising: While initially about 130 people had received deportation notices, 37 people were scheduled for the flight on 15 June, 30 of them successfully defended themselves legally, so that the flight that has now been stopped would have included only seven passengers.

In view of the almost 30,000 successful crossings in 2021, the British Foreign Secretary’s assessment that the only thing that matters is that the smugglers‘ business model is „broken“ is reminiscent of magical thinking.
The EU is not unfamiliar with such thinking either; the agreement it concluded with Turkey on the deportations from Greece – which in fact failed – bears traits of such logic. There are also enough populist movements and parties in the EU that would welcome any further measures to deter migrants. Even with a de facto failure in the UK, it is not unlikely that, despite all the problems, it could become a model for the discussion of a corresponding EU initiative in the future. Whether such a debate would ever be translated into actual policy is highly speculative; but that it would also factually fail if implemented is to be assumed.
For as desperate as people are who, at the hoped-for destination of their migration paths, are thrown back to the status of displaced person by being deported to a faraway country, it seems unrealistic for people on the move to give this possibility much weight in their migration decisions. In a world that is full of border traps for them, they are preoccupied with overcoming the barriers that are just in front of them and are perhaps confronted with the question of whether it is worth risking their lives in the process. It is simply unlikely that they have an eye for the instruments that the migration policy magician has in his terrible magic box at their destination.

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