Ministers have for the first time signed a deal to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to another country to have their cases processed, in a move experts warn will encourage people traffickers.
Boris Johnson is set to announce an agreement with Rwanda that will see migrants “offshored” 4,000 miles away to the landlocked African country while they wait for an asylum decision from the Home Office.
The prime minister is expected to set out the plans in a speech on Thursday morning, stating:“Our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not.
“The British people voted several times to control our borders – not to close them, but to control them. So just as Brexit allowed us to take back control of legal immigration by replacing free movement with our points-based system, we are also taking back control of illegal immigration, with a long-term plan for asylum in this country.”
But while the government claims the move will allow the UK to “take back control”, critics condemned the policy, saying it was “cruel and nasty”.
Describing it as “unworkable, unethical and extortionate”, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper warned that it would cost the UK taxpayer billions of pounds during a cost of living crisis and would make it “harder, not easier” to get fast and fair asylum decisions.
She slammed the announcement as a “desperate and shameful” attempt by Mr Johnson to “distract from his own law-breaking” and from the “collapse” of the Home Office’s decision-making on asylum claims, which sees thousands waiting for more than a year for a decision.
“The Home Office is now a catalogue of failure, from passport queues to Ukrainian visa delays, to rising crime and falling prosecutions. Instead of getting a grip on the basics, all Priti Patel and Mr Johnson do is come up with wild and unworkable headlines. Britain deserves better,” she added.
Enver Solomon, of the Refugee Council, said: “We are appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision to send those seeking sanctuary in our country to Rwanda. Offshoring the UK’s asylum system will do absolutely nothing to address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK.
“It will do little to deter them from coming to this country, but only lead to more human suffering and chaos – at a huge expense of an estimated £1.4bn a year.
“Far from enabling people to rebuild their lives, we know from where this has been done by other countries [that] it only results in high levels of self-harm and mental health issues, and can also lead to people ending up back in the hands of people smugglers.”
The plan to develop capacity for offshore processing forms part of the Home Office’s controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently going through parliament.
Senior Tories have condemned the measure, with former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell warning that the move would involve building a “British Guantanamo Bay” and would cost £2m per asylum seeker – more than putting them up in the Ritz hotel.
Richard Harrington, the government’s own refugees minister, said only last week that he had not been informed of the plans, and indicated that any such policy is likely to fail.
Critics point to a similar migration deal between Rwanda and Israel between 2014 and 2017, which resulted in most of those who were sent there leaving the country and making the dangerous journey to Europe – during which many people were trafficked and sold.
Campaigners have also warned that the plan is likely to see LGBT+ asylum seekers who have fled life-threatening situations in their home countries and sought protection in the UK being sent to a country where it is not safe for gay and transgender people to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
There is widespread evidence of ill-treatment and abuse of LGBT+ people in Rwanda, with a Human Rights Watch report last year stating that Rwandan authorities had rounded up and arbitrarily detained gay and transgender people in the country.
A policy of offshoring asylum seekers in Australia, which ran from 2001 to 2007 and restarted in 2014, has seen thousands diverted to Nauru or Manus Island to have their claims processed. The policy has been widely condemned, with Amnesty International saying it amounted to indefinite detention in what may be considered “degrading or inhumane” conditions.
Sonya Sceats, chief executive at Freedom from Torture, said the plans were “deeply disturbing” and should “horrify anybody with a conscience”.
“Australia’s experiment with offshore processing camps became a hotbed of human rights abuses, where sexual abuse of women and children was rife,” she said. “It is even more dismaying that the UK government has agreed this deal with a state known to practice torture, as we know from the many Rwandan torture survivors we have treated over the years.
“While the prime minister keeps flogging his toxic anti-refugee ideology, the extraordinary compassion shown by the British public to those fleeing the war in Ukraine shows that he has dangerously misjudged the public mood.”
Mr Johnson will state in his announcement that the plan will “ensure the UK has a world-leading asylum offer, providing generous protection to those directly fleeing the worst of humanity, by settling thousands of people every year through safe and legal routes”.
Following Mr Johnson’s speech, home secretary Ms Patel will announce further details on what the government has dubbed a “world-first migration and economic development partnership” during a visit to Rwanda.