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Grassroots activists protest the United Kingdom's treatment of the people who have risked dangerous journey across the English Channel (Philip Robins/Unsplash)

UK Migration “Theater”: What’s Behind the Controversial Rwanda Deportation Scheme?

As British officials vow to clamp down on migration, more than 29,000 people have made the journey from northern France this year.

Words: Katy Fallon
Pictures: Philip Robins

On June 15, 2022, a group of seven asylum seekers sat on British tarmac waiting for their deportation flight to leave for Rwanda. The African nation was, under a newly struck and controversial “partnership” with the United Kingdom, meant to not just process their claims but ultimately — if the applicants received a positive asylum decision — provide them with refugee status in the country.  

Over the course of the day, people were steadily removed from the plane as rulings from the European Court of Human Rights deemed that they should not be deported until they had had the opportunities to exhaust all legal remedies for their asylum cases in the UK. As evening fell the British Home Office was forced to concede that the flight would not take off as planned. In response, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of the center-left Labour party, tweeted that the deal was “inhumane” and that “sending people fleeing violence to a country thousands of miles away was already cruel and callous. It’s now potentially unlawful too.”

The plan had been cooked up just months before by the Conservative ruling party, which has made “stopping the boats” a centerpiece of their rhetoric. In April 2022, then Home Secretary Priti Patel stood on a stage in the Rwandan capital Kigali, alongside Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, and declared that the plan was “a major blow to the evil people smugglers,” and that it was a “world-leading migration and economic development partnership,” which would “change the way we collectively tackle illegal migration.”

To date, not one plane has taken off, and critics have said the deportation scheme plays into a “theater” of cruelty rather than focusing on workable solutions. The British Supreme Court also judged the plan unlawful in November 2023, stating that it breached domestic law as well as multiple international conventions, including the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Nonetheless the British government, which has already sunk millions of pounds into the endeavor, has vowed to implement the policy and announced a fresh treaty with the African nation in December 2023. The new plan would see an additional £100 million (around $125.77 million) handed over to Rwanda for its implementation. “We feel very strongly that this treaty addresses all of the issues raised by their lordships in the Supreme Court and we have worked very closely with our Rwandan partners to ensure that it does so,” said current Home Secretary James Cleverly, now the third British Home Secretary to forge a deal with Rwanda since April 2022.


Camille Le Coz, an associate director at Migration Policy Europe, said the deportation plan represented how countries like the UK are attempting to “sort out challenges externally instead of investing in the national mechanisms, to fix the asylum system in the UK.” 

Le Cloz added that the failure to implement the policy “raises questions as to whether that’s where political capital and resources should be invested.” She noted that the Rwanda ‘model’ has also gained traction in some European Union nations, with Denmark having explored the option of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for their claims to be processed. “It’s a little bit of a distraction from my perspective, we need to set up better asylum systems. … It sounds a little bit like we’re diverting the attention to these kinds of models that are extremely costly both in terms of political capital and funding and have so far not yielded any result.”

Meanwhile, NGOs and human rights organizations have long sounded the alarm about the conditions for displaced people in northern France, who, if they made it to the UK, would be candidates for removal to Rwanda. 

Felix Thomson, communications officer at the Calais Appeal, a consortium of grassroots organizations working in northern France, said that there had been floods this year as well as falling wintery temperatures. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people live displaced in the northern France region, most hoping to get to the UK either by small boat or hiding in trucks thanks to a lack of legal pathways.

Many of those living displaced in the region stay in tents and are subject to evictions every 48 hours by French authorities, according to Thomson. These evictions usually result in the confiscations of people’s belongings, including medications, documents or other valuable items that people then struggle to have returned. The hostile environment only pushes people further to make the dangerous crossing to the UK, Thomson says. “We see nothing that I would call a deterrence working.” 

After the announcement of the Rwanda plan, Thomson explains, it seemed as though there was an initial dip in numbers. But since then the number of people crossing has only grown. As of early December, more than 29,000 people had crossed since the beginning of the year. “Many people feel that it’s not something that’s going to convince them not to go,” Thomson says. “Part of the reason that people then eventually do try and get onto boats or buses, or whatever to get to the UK is partly because northern France is so unsafe.”

“All we want is security”

For those living rough in the region, hoping either to get on a small and unseaworthy dinghy across the English Channel, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, they say they see no other option. “We need peace, because here the police are beating us with all their might, all we want is security, nothing else,” reads the testimony of one 17-year-old Syrian, collected by Utopia 56, an organization which runs a 24-hour emergency hotline and works along the French coast helping people in need.

Ministers from the UK’s Conservative party, which is increasingly split on how to tackle migration, have lashed out at human rights lawyers working on behalf of asylum seekers in the UK, who they say have thwarted their plans. Former UK Home Secretary Priti Patel leveled attacks at what she called “activist lawyers,” frustrating the government’s deportation flights.

 Meanwhile, former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said that the criminal justice system was being “hamstrung” by “lefty human rights lawyers.” International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have condemned the “reckless rhetoric” from government ministers after one human rights lawyer received death threats.

Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, director of communications at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which has spoken out against the Rwanda deal, said the plan was a symbol of cruelty rather than anything else and a “complete and utter farce,” adding that “the government appears to be a victim of the sunken costs fallacy.” 

Muthiah said 140 million pounds ($175.9 million) of “taxpayers’ money has already been wasted on a plan that has been rejected by the Supreme Court and always was, and remains, immoral and unworkable.” 

He added, “This government is addicted to cruelty. It’s time they admit that this scheme has failed and instead ensure there is a fast, fair and humane asylum process in place. They must listen to reason and put in simple measures which mean no-one would need to risk their lives in small boats. ”Meanwhile the British government has committed to another newly inked deal with Rwanda. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose year-long tenure has been dominated by talk of “illegal immigration,” has promised to get flights off the ground to Rwanda. For now, although millions of pounds of British taxpayer money has left for Kigali, no deportation flight has.

Katy Fallon

Katy Fallon is a Greece-based journalist writing about borders. She was the co-winner of 2023 Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize for journalism and is regularly published in The Guardian and Al Jazeera English.

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